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The Boeing 737 Max grounding is still affecting air travel

Airlines have changed flight schedules into December, and the aircraft’s return is still uncertain.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max aircrafts
Multiple airlines have removed Boeing’s 737 Max jets from their flight schedules into December, with some extending to January 2020.

Multiple airlines have publicly removed Boeing 737 Max jets from flight schedules stretching into December, with some carriers expecting its return in early 2020. The aircraft has been internationally grounded since March, following two fatal crashes within five months of one another.

”Our best current estimate continues to be a return to service of the Max that begins early in the fourth quarter,” a Boeing spokesperson told the International Business Times.

There have been very few airplane groundings throughout history, said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group. He added that the Boeing 737 grounding has proven to be the longest so far. Global commercial fleets currently comprise more than 25,000 aircrafts, so Aboulafia thinks the roughly 500 grounded planes should not majorly affect aircraft operations.

“A lot of airlines were expecting to get more Maxes this year and aren’t getting them, which is probably the bigger problem,” he said.

Airlines are proactively removing the planes from schedules until further notice to prevent more last-minute cancellations and delays into the holiday season.

On Sunday, American Airlines announced it will extend its Max flight cancellations into early December. This would roughly impact about 140 daily flights, on top of the thousands of flights canceled this summer due to the grounding, CNBC reported. This might even affect some flight routes: Last month, American said it will drop its direct Oakland to Dallas route to use the plane for flights with greater demand.

The airline is also feuding with its mechanics union, alleging that workers are organizing in an illegal work slowdown that caused operational delays and canceled flights.

United Airlines, which canceled around 2,400 flights for June and July, is similarly pulling the 737 Max from its schedule until December 19. Air Canada and Southwest Airlines — which has the highest number of Max aircrafts in its fleet — have anticipated that the aircrafts will be out of commission until next year, removing flights scheduled to fly with the Max into January 2020.

The Federal Aviation Administration has not announced an official timeline for when the aircraft would be cleared to fly. In June, the agency said it had found another issue with Boeing’s software that the manufacturer has to address before it can return to service.

As Stephie Grob Plante reported in June for The Goods, “FAA approval on so-called “software enhancements” of the MCAS system is what’s needed before the agency will lift the grounding; though as The Verge reported, significant human error at both Boeing and the FAA — rushed production, administrative incompetence, insufficient pilot training — remains largely to blame.”

Even when the aircraft returns to major airlines’ fleets, there’s no clear consensus on whether or not passengers will actually want to fly on it.

Bloomberg cited a report from airline analyst Henry Harteveldt, which found that at least 20 percent of US travelers want to avoid the Max jet in the first six months after flights resume. But Reuters reported in May that U.S. travelers on a budget still consider ticket prices the most important factor when choosing a flight. In the same poll, only half of American adults say they are familiar with the two fatal crashes that led to the grounding, and 40 percent could identify the aircraft involved.

United Airlines said Wednesday that it would allow passengers fearful of boarding a Max to rebook flights for free once the aircraft rejoins its fleet, CNN reported. Southwest also told CNN that it would accommodate passengers accordingly.

“If you get to the gate and it’s not an airplane you want to fly on for whatever reason, if it’s a Max, we’ll put you on another flight,” said Andrew Nocella, the airline’s chief commercial officer.

It still would take at least a couple more months and the clearance of federal regulators for the 737 Max to return, and no one — not even Boeing — is sure of the timeline.

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