Grounded Planes Expected To Interfere With Summer Travel

May 21, 2019
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U.S. airlines expect a record number of people to fly this summer; that's according to the industry group Airlines for America, which releases its summer travel forecast today. But some airlines will have trouble carrying all of those passengers because they have fewer planes available. Boeing's troubled 737 Max planes remain grounded. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Travel agent Giselle Sanchez books her clients to fly on all kinds of different planes.

GISELLE SANCHEZ: Well, 787-800, which is the Dreamliner. There is the Airbus 321, which is similar to the 737. There are 747s out there, 767s, 757s...

SCHAPER: And that doesn't include the most popular passenger jet, Boeing's 737, and there are several versions of that.

SANCHEZ: So there's an 800 series or maybe a 700 series. And then there is that Max plane.

SCHAPER: The 737 Max has been grounded by aviation authorities around the world after two crashes - one in Indonesia last fall and another in Ethiopia in March, which killed 346 people combined. Sanchez says after the second crash, her Mena Tours & Travel office on Chicago's North Side got hectic.

SANCHEZ: Well, first of all, clients were very concerned. So anyone that looked at their itinerary and it said 737 were concerned. So we were getting phone calls and clients wanting to know if their plane was grounded or if their plane was a Max.

SCHAPER: With the planes now grounded indefinitely, airlines have pulled the Max from their schedules into mid-August. Henry Harteveldt is a travel industry analyst for Atmosphere Research.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: The impact of the 737 grounding is certainly going to be felt by travelers. For one thing, you simply have that much less capacity operating.

SCHAPER: But Harteveldt says only three U.S. airlines fly the 737 Max - Southwest, American and United - and they each own relatively few, so there really won't be that many flights canceled.

HARTEVELDT: This is not, by any chance, going to be the summer from hell.

SCHAPER: The biggest impact will be on Southwest, which has 34 Max planes sitting idle, and is forced to cancel about 160 flights a day; that's about 5% of its schedule. American has 24 grounded Maxes and is canceling about 115 flights a day, while United has 14 Max planes and is only canceling a few daily flights. Some non-U.S. airlines are affected, too, including Air Canada, WestJet and Norwegian Air. Again, Henry Harteveldt.

HARTEVELDT: If there is a silver lining to the very dark cloud that is the 737 Max grounding, it is that the grounding occurred back in March, and that the airlines were very proactive in grounding the airplane essentially through the summer.

SCHAPER: That's allowed airlines to either substitute other planes or rebook passengers initially ticketed for Max flights on to other flights, although that sometimes may involve connecting through another city. But Hayley Berg, an economist with the airfare and travel forecasting firm Hopper, says a handful of flights are no longer available at all.

HAYLEY BERG: There are some lower-demand routes; an example would be Southwest suspending service from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles. But travelers from Pittsburgh can still fly on other competitive airlines who still fly that route.

SCHAPER: Berg says a few flights might be more expensive while the 737 Max is grounded, but not many. On average, she says the price of an airline ticket this summer is pretty reasonable.

BERG: The airline industry is incredibly competitive, especially this summer with, you know, expansion of routes, competition, you know, low-cost carriers entering and expanding in the market. So consumers are in a great position that airlines are working hard to make sure that they can capture that demand and get them on their planes.

SCHAPER: But with travel demand high, Berg says prices will rise the longer you wait. So if you haven't booked your summer vacation yet, you might want to do it soon. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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