It is increasingly likely that the global grounding of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft will stretch into 2020.
If that happens, the major airlines will be forced to try and manage the holiday travel season without an important segment of their fleets, likely leading to cancellations and major logistical challenges.
American Airlines is the latest to extend 737 Max cancellations. It's now removed the plane from its schedule through November 2, although that date can be extended.
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As the global grounding of Boeing's 737 Max drags on, airlines are eyeing a new challenge on the horizon: a holiday travel season without a full fleet.
When all variations of the 737 Max were grounded in March, following the second deadly crash in five months, Boeing and airlines that fly the plane were optimistic that it could be returned to service quickly. A relatively simple software update was expected to be approved and implemented this summer.
The software fix initially addressed a potential flaw with the plane's MCAS, or Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. MCAS is an automated system that compensates for the fact that the 737 Max has larger engines than previous 737 generations. The larger engines could cause the plane's nose to tip upward, leading to a stall — in that situation, MCAS could automatically point the nose downward to negate the effect of the engine size.
However, as the grounding has extended into the summer, several new issues have emerged that raise additional safety concerns, including problems with electronic components and with emergency recovery procedures. Many FAA officials and airline executives now doubt that the plane will return to service before 2020, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Read more: Boeing announced a major leadership shuffle for its troubled 737 Max team, and the head of the program is out
The three US airlines that have the Max in their fleets — American, Southwest, and United — have issued several extensions to their Max-related cancellations. American's latest, through November 2, is the fifth time the airline has pushed the grounding back. Southwest's latest cancellation end-date is October 1, and United's is November 3, although as the situation remains fluid, those dates can be extended even further. Initially, the FAA expected the software fix to be ready by April, and it was anticipated that it would be the only necessary fix.
The 737 Max saga continues
What initially began as an inconvenience for the airlines, causing them to cancel some flights and cover others with spare aircraft, has developed into a much larger `problem. Each of the airlines was supposed to receive additional deliveries of Max aircraft throughout the second and third quarters — consequently, they planned flight schedules and logistics for the end of the year with the assumption that those aircraft would be available.
For instance, United, which only has 14 of the 737 Max 9 aircraft in its fleet — however, it was supposed to receive 16 more through 2019, according to data compiled by USA Today. American has 24 of the Max 8s, but was supposed to receive 16 more, while Southwest — the largest operator with 14 Max 8s — was supposed to take delivery of an additional 41 aircraft this year.
Airlines are now scrambling to cover flights with other aircraft that were supposed to be flown by those Max planes, and that's becoming increasingly difficult to do. American has cancelled nearly 115 daily flights due to the Max — and recently suspended an entire route altogether, and Southwest has cancelled around 150 daily flights. United, meanwhile, expects to cancel 2,100 flights in September, and 2,900 in October due to the 737 Max saga.
Read more: American Airlines made a doctor wrap a blanket around herself because a flight attendant found her summer outfit 'inappropriate'
Boeing expects to submit all of the required software fixes — which should address every issue raised so far — by the end of September, according to a Washington Post report. Should the fixes be sufficient and approved quickly, the aircraft can theoretically return to regular service by November.
However, if regulators find additional problems, or require any revisions or refinements to the software fix, the timeline could be pushed back an indeterminate amount of time. The FAA has not offered a timeline for when it expects to lift the grounding order.
American, Southwest, and United all declined to comment on the expected impact to holiday travel, referring to the latest schedule updates instead.
The airlines are avoiding committing to either the most optimistic or the more pessimistic timelines. With the latest cancellations extended through November 3, the airlines will be able to easily slot the jet into its equipment rotation should the FAA lift its grounding order quickly upon reviewing the software fix. However, the airlines are also leaving the door open to cancelling the Max's flights for later weeks and months.
Should the latter scenario happen, the airlines will then have to figure out which flights to cancel, and which to cover with limited spare equipment, during the busiest travel days of the year. Data from AAA suggests that this year's travel period may be one of the busiest on record.
However, even if the plane can be returned to service before the holiday rush, airlines will face another daunting challenge: convincing nervous passengers that the jet is, indeed, safe.SEE ALSO: Boeing announced a major leadership shuffle for its troubled 737 Max team, and the head of the program is out
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