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Boeing 737 Max grounded: What is the impact on European airlines?

‘In the first two months of 2019 almost one-third of all Max flights from European airports were operated by Norwegian’ – analyst Ralph Anker

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 20 March 2019 09:45 GMT
Trump grounds 737 MAX fleet following Ethiopia crash

As investigations continue into the loss of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302, the possible effects of the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max are becoming clearer.

The US Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA) banned the aircraft four days after the crash outside Addis Ababa on 10 March in which 157 people died.

There are concerns that the software governing a stall-protection system may have been responsible for the loss of the Ethiopian aircraft as well a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max in October 2018.

Many other regulations, include the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, had already grounded the latest version of the 737 in the wake of the second crash.

Boeing has told airlines that it expects new software for the Boeing 737 Max to be ready by the end of March. Even if this proves correct, there is no certainty about how long it might take for the upgrade to be certified by the lead regulator, the FAA.

“Those planes will stay on the ground for at least several months,” predicted Dominic Gates, the Seattle Times aerospace reporter who has been investigating the certification process for the Boeing 737 Max.

In addition, individual countries may insist on evaluating the fix before they allow Boeing 737 Max flights in their airspace.

According to the latest Anker Report by analyst Ralph Anker, Norwegian is likely to be worst affected by a protracted prohibition on the plane.

The latest version of the Boeing 737 makes up a relatively small proportion of most airlines’ fleets, but Norwegian is heavily committed to the type.

“In the first two months of 2019 almost one-third of all Max flights from European airports were operated by Norwegian,” says Mr Anker.

Most of the departures were from Norwegian’s bases in Helsinki, Oslo and Stockholm, but services from Edinburgh and Gatwick were also affected. The airline has 18 Max versions of the 737.

On its links from Dublin to the US, Norwegian is deploying one of its Boeing 787s to cover for two separate flights using the 737 Max. The flight, with nearly twice the capacity of a 737, is operating to Stewart airport north of New York, with bus transfers for passengers to and from Providence in Rhode Island.

Norwegian and other airlines can charter in capacity from other carriers, though with so many planes being grounded there is probably insufficient capacity.

Ryanair has ordered 135 of the Boeing 737 Max jets in its own special “200” configuration, with eight extra seats. It was due to receive more than 40 over the next year, and start flying on 14 May from Stansted to a range of destinations.

The Irish budget airline probably has more flexibility than other carriers. Ryanair is constantly retiring Boeing 737-800 aircraft, since it prefers to keep maintenance costs in check and sell its planes while they are still relatively young.

While some will already be committed elsewhere, other planes can be kept flying longer than originally intended.

In addition, Ryanair can reduce the number of standby aircraft that it keeps strategically around its network in case of mechanical problems – though this increases the degree of disruption when the back-up is needed.

Finally, Ryanair could thin out its flights on high-frequency routes such as Stansted to Dublin (seven daily) or Rome (five daily). With two weeks’ notice it can move passengers to other flights without penalty, or offer refunds. The freed-up planes can then be used on lower-frequency, higher-yield services.

The only UK operator of the Boeing 737 Max is TUI Airways, which has been able to shuffle its fleet since the grounding began.

This will be tougher with the onset of the Easter holidays and the main summer season from May, when planes are worked much harder.

Like other airlines, it could contemplate re-jig the schedules with earlier starts and later finishes for some aircraft, and switching some day services to overnights. But short-notice changes are always unpopular with passengers.

How to tell if you're on a Boeing 737 Max

Turkish Airlines has a dozen Max aircraft. Mr Anker says the grounding will add an unwelcome extra dimension to the much-delayed airport move from the carrier’s base at Istanbul Ataturk airport. It is due to move all operations across to the New Istanbul Airport in early April.

Istanbul is due to be the busiest airport for the Boeing 737 Max during the summer season, beginning on 31 March. Until the aircraft was grounded, Helsinki had the most Max operations.

Worldwide, the airlines with the most Max aircraft delivered so far are in North America (Air Canada, American Airlines, Southwest) and the Chinese pair, China Southern and Air China.

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