737 MAX planes grounded; what it means for travelers

Air travelers planning trips in the weeks ahead may want to double check what kind of plane they’re set to fly on.

737 MAX planes grounded; what it means for travelers
Dozens of countries and multiple airlines around the world have grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8 following Sunday's deadly crash in Ethiopia. (Source: Boeing/CNN)

(WAFB) - President Trump announced Wednesday that the FAA is grounding all Boeing 737 Max planes “effective immediately,” following the deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 people, including eight Americans. All planes in the air at the time of the agency’s order were allowed to reach their destinations but prohibited from taking off again, the FAA said in a statement.

With so many countries now barring the aircraft from flying, delays and cancellations could grow as airlines scramble to reassign flights to other planes in their fleet.

There are about 350 Boeing 737 MAX 8s in operation worldwide, being flown by 54 operators, according to the FAA.

Travelers can check the full list of airlines that fly the plane on the Boeing website.

Passengers can look up the model of plane they are flying on for any given flight. It’s often listed on boarding passes or tickets, or passengers can call and ask the airline.

If they see they would be flying on a 737 MAX 8 and they choose not to take that flight because they feel unsafe, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines both said their standard flight change policies would apply.

For American, each passenger is charged an additional fee if a change is made to the flight.

For Southwest, passengers can change their flights with no charge. Passengers pay only the difference in fare when they change flights on Southwest.

Legally, passengers do not have much recourse when it comes to changing flights free of charge or getting full refunds. FAA regulations say airlines are able to change planes “jet for jet,” meaning that if it is the same class of plane and they change the specific model at the last minute, they are not required to provide any kind of refund, according to aviation attorney Mary Schiavo, a CNN transportation analyst and former inspector general at the US Department of Transportation.

“The airline has the right to substitute equipment,” Schiavo said. “If you could book a 737 500, and you find out it’s a 737 MAX, technically they don’t have to honor your request. So you don’t have a right to specify you are not going to go on a 737 MAX.”

Schiavo said the only option available to passengers right now is to ask the airline staff if they will change the flight and be lenient with their policies. “You’re going to have to have a discussion with the counter personnel or the gate personnel, who may or may not be understanding,” she said.

Southwest Airlines has more Max 8 aircraft, with 34 of the planes in service, than any other American carrier, meaning it will have to work that much harder to reassign flights. Even before the U.S. grounded the aircraft though, Southwest was letting passengers rebook on another aircraft.

In a statement Wednesday, Southwest said the 737 Max aircraft accounted for less than 5 percent of its flights each day. Customers booked on cancelled 737 Max flights will be able to rebook on alternate flights without any additional fees or fare differences within 14 days of their original date of travel between the two original destinations.

United Airlines said that around 40 flights a day are served by the company’s 14 MAX aircraft typically. ”Through a combination of spare aircraft and rebooking customers, we do not anticipate a significant operational impact as a result of this order,” a United spokesman said. “We will continue to work with our customers to help minimize any disruption to their travel.”

The cause of the Ethiopian Airlines crash has not yet been determined, but the incident marked the second time in five months a Boeing 737 Max 8 plane crashed within minutes of takeoff.

The FAA said the order grounding the plane “will remain in effect pending further investigation, including examination of information from the aircraft’s flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders.” The order also prohibits all Max planes from entering U.S. airspace.

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