Airlines feel the squeeze of Max grounding

Air Canada has grounded its 737 Max aircraft until at least July 1, giving the airline and passengers some certainty for the next three months.

The airline, like rival Westjet, has juggled capacity to cope with the loss of 24 aircraft and almost 12% of the mainline fleet.

Air Canada said Tuesday it has shuffled its fleet and extended leases on aircraft to make up capacity. It is also speeding up introduction of new Airbus A321 aircraft it bought from WOW Air, and hired planes from Air Transat to fly some Montreal-based routes.

“Customers who have travel plans between now and July can be reassured that we will keep them informed every step of the way as we revise our schedule,” sais Chief Operating Officer Lucie Guillemette in a statement. “We have a deep global network and many partner airlines to provide solutions so serving our customers and minimizing any disruption is our first priority.”

Air Canada has also responded to the crisis by grounding some routes where other aircraft could not replace the Max’s size and range, such as Halifax and St. John’s to London-Heathrow. Seasonal routes from Calgary to Palm Springs and Vancouver to Kona, Hawaii have also ended early.

Air Canada says with the moves, it can complete 98% of its planned flying through the end of April, when summer schedules generally kick in.

Westjet is also showing the strain of the Boeing Max groundings around the world, suspending all guidance it issued to investors about its financial performance in 2019.

Boeing has 13 Max aircraft in its fleet, representing almost 11% of mainline planes.

Despite the tumult, Westjet has shuffled capacity to keep passengers moving. For example, the airline has put both of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft on its key Calgary-Toronto route, providing extra capacity on the mainline between its two hubs. Other 737s that were scheduled were then redeployed to other markets. It has also shifted larger Boeing 767 aircraft to fly between Alberta and Hawaii, which were served by Max aircraft.

Westjet chief executive Ed Sims said in a public letter on Sunday that 98% of flights were being completed, and 80% were arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled time.

“While these statistics are below our normal operating standards,” he said, “we are pleased that WestJetters across the system have stepped up to assist to keep our guests moving as best we can.”

The airline says in the next few weeks, it will be able to operate 75% of its planned flights and accommodate 86% of passengers who were booked on Max flights.

With the suspension of its financial guidance, Westjet joins Air Canada, which announced a similar measure last week. They and Sunwing have been scrambling to fill the gaps left by the Max grounding. Sunwing remains the only airline to announce it has not cancelled any flights, a feat it accomplished by leasing planes from other carriers.

Boeing had as recently as last week stood behind the safety of its Max planes, but has dropped the claim from recent public communications. Westjet has followed suit.

“We will turn,” said Sims, “together with the various regulatory bodies involved, our attention to understanding what updates need to be made to the aircraft and what training needs to be developed and implemented to our fleet of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.”

Company forecasts of increasing earnings and profits this year have been thrown into doubt by the Max uncertainty, though Westjet forecasts for 2020 – 2022 remain in place for the time being, indicating hopes the grounding will not be a long one.

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