A Practical Update on the Boeing 737MAX Situation
TUESDAY, MARCH 12, 2019 -- I wanted to briefly--and practically--update you on the chaotic situation surrounding the Boeing 737MAX8.

Various airlines and governments have grounded the aircraft--and the MAX9 variant--in the hours since Sunday when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed just after takeoff from Addis Ababa.

The latest, and most impactful, is the United Kingdom. This morning, it temporarily banned the aircraft from departing or arriving at any U.K. airport and also banned the aircraft from overflying UK airspace. Other European nations--including France, Germany, Austria and Ireland--promptly followed suit. That's surprising for two reasons: This is not action from EASA, the Europe-wide safety agency*; and Europe usually rubber-stamps decisions from the FAA, which reaffirmed that it believes the 737MAX8 is safe to fly.

The moves by major European countries might put real pressure on U.S. and Canadian regulators to follow suit, too. Pay attention to this development carefully in the hours ahead.

The most important practical effect of the British ban is that Air Canada has cancelled some of its flights to and from the United Kingdom. It also led Norwegian to ground its fleet of 737MAX8s. That will impact a handful of U.S. flights since Norwegian flies to the Caribbean and some Europe cities from the United States using its fleet of 18 737MAX8s.

Major North American operators of the MAX8--Southwest Airlines (34), American Airlines (24), Air Canada (24) and WestJet (13)--are flying the aircraft with the full approval of Canadian and U.S. regulators. However, Aeromexico chose to ground its fleet, as have the South American carriers GOL and Aerolineas Argentinas. United Airlines operates the Boeing 737MAX9, not the MAX8 aircraft.

How do you know if you are booked on a 737MAX8? The codes designating the aircraft are 78M or B38M. All four U.S. and Canadian carriers operating the plane display the aircraft information if you click on the hotlinked "details" or flight number lines when looking at reservations. No one is hiding the aircraft designation. And a reminder: Other variations of the Boeing 737--including the 737-800 and 737NG series--are literally, mechanically and emotionally different aircraft.

Should you fly the 737MAX8 (or, for that matter, the related MAX9)? How do I know? I'm a business traveler, I am not an engineer. Do I trust the FAA when it says the plane is safe to fly? Yes. Would I argue with it if it chooses to ground the plane at a later time? No. Would I disagree with you if you didn't want to fly the MAX8 or MAX9? Of course not. Just as I hate being in your wallet, I can't be in your head and heart. Only you can decide what is right for you. If I had to get somewhere and a 737MAX8 flight was the only option would I book it? Yes.

And remember: Airlines never guarantee any aircraft will operate on any particular flight. You could assiduously book away from a 737MAX8, show up at the airport and find there's been an equipment change. That's the reality.

If you're booked on a 737MAX8 and don't want to fly, will the airline let you change? Southwest doesn't have change fees, so you're good to change. American, Air Canada and WestJet (and United if you fear the MAX9) do have fees for changes. Still, some travelers report that the airlines are waiving the fee on a case-by-case basis. So call if you wish to switch and explore your options.

Some useful data points:
      + On an average week, about 8,500 flights have been operated without incident with Boeing 737MAX8s. That number, however, will drop substantially as about half of the 300 or so aircraft have now been grounded as a result of the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
      + If you want to see the flight paths and airline-by-airline specifics of MAX8 aircraft currently in the air, surf here.
      + If you want to read the latest FAA guidance on the MAX8, download the PDF here. It was issued yesterday, March 11.
      + No matter what you read elsewhere, the MAX situation is NOT unique. Early generations of the Airbus A320 had four fatal crashes in five years. Three of those crashes happened on the runway or on approach to it. I'm not doing "whataboutism," simply pointing out that it is not unprecedented that new aircraft have serious problems.
      + Southwest and American airlines are struggling with fleet issues unrelated to the 737MAX8. Southwest claims that its mechanics have been "writing up" too many aircraft as part of a six-year contract dispute. It is cancelling many flights each day due to lack of aircraft. Over at American, 14 Boeing 737-800s were grounded last week due to a shoddy interior retrofit. That has led American to cancel as many as six dozen flights a day since Thursday. Does this equipment shortage factor into the FAA's decision to continue to allow the 737MAX8 to fly? Your mileage may vary on conclusions.

* EASA has now banned the Boeing 737MAX8 and MAX9 in European Union airspace.