Airlines prepare 737 Max for service, but are flyers, and advisors, ready?

United will allow rebookings off of Max-operated flights at no charge and said it will also offer refunds.
United will allow rebookings off of Max-operated flights at no charge and said it will also offer refunds.

As airlines ready their Boeing 737 Max aircraft for a long-awaited return to the skies, travel advisors must decide whether to handle bookings on Max-operated flights differently than they handle bookings for all other flights.

Plans at this early stage vary. 

"We will deal with those differently," said Angela Hochhalter, air desk manager for Birmingham, Ala.-based Brownell Travel.

She explained that Brownell won't book a flight on a Max before making sure the client in question is comfortable flying on the now-infamous aircraft. 

But Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-owner of New York-based Valerie Wilson Travel, said she'll handle flights operated with Max planes like other bookings.

Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg
Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg

"I never want to minimize the loss of lives from those two crashes," she said of the Max accidents in October 2018 and March 2019 that killed 346 people and resulted in a global grounding of the aircraft. "But I have to put trust into our system that the FAA and other authorities have tested and reviewed it and that the recertification has occurred."

The 737 Max is slated to return to commercial service in the U.S. skies on Dec. 29, when American Airlines will begin flying one of its 24 Max aircraft between Miami and New York LaGuardia. United has said it will resume operations with the aircraft during the first quarter of next year. Southwest expects to begin bringing its 34 Max back into service in the second quarter. Alaska will take delivery of its first Max plane in January and plans a March service launch. 

The stage was set for the plane to return to the skies on Nov. 18, when FAA administrator Steve Dickson signed an order ending its 20-month grounding. Other aviation regulatory authorities, including ones in Europe, China, Canada and Brazil, must also give the go-ahead before airlines can once again use the plane the world over. Analysts expect such approvals to begin shortly, and last week the EU commenced its Max ungrounding process with the publication of a proposed airworthiness directive. Formal approval to fly is likely in January.

The October 2018 crash of Lion Air flight 610 and the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 the following March were both the result of a faulty sensor, which transmitted erroneous information to the planes' automated flight control systems, causing them to nosedive.

Boeing has addressed that issue by altering the flight control system so that it now compares input from two sensors rather than responding to input from one sensor only. The aircraft only corrects its angle of attack if both sensors provide the same input. In addition, the flight control system, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), will only activate once in response to sensor input, rather than repeatedly, as it did in the two crashes. 

FAA administrator Dickson himself underwent Max flight training in the early fall and test flew a Max plane for approximately two hours in late September. In a video posted to YouTube on Nov. 18, he expressed confidence that the aircraft is now air worthy.

"I can tell you now that I am 100% comfortable with my family flying on it," Dickson said.

Still, under the new FAA requirements, airlines can't put their Max planes in the air immediately. They must first install new flight control software and make other system upgrades. In addition, airlines must develop new pilot training requirements, including simulator training, in order to familiarize pilots with the MCAS.

Carriers must also take required maintenance steps to ready the Max to fly again. United, for example, said it will fly more than 1,350 Max test flights with the updated MCAS and will have put the fleet through almost 400,000 engineering and test hours prior to the relaunch. 

Airlines are also emphasizing that they'll make it clear to customers when they are booking a flight on a Max, and they are promising flexible change policies. United will allow rebookings off of Max-operated flights at no charge and said it will also offer refunds. 

American and Southwest aren't offering refunds for nonrefundable fares, but both carriers will allow free rebookings off the Max when the rebooked flight is for the same city pair. In addition, American will enable customers to make itinerary changes within 300 miles for no extra charge.

Such assurances are enough to provide Wilson-Buttigieg with confidence that she'll be able to make the necessary changes for any clients who express concern upon seeing that they are ticketed on a Max-operated flight, she said. 

Angela Hochhalter
Angela Hochhalter

Hochhalter also said she is confident that the Max will be safe upon its return to service. But she added that until clients have time to get comfortable with the idea of being on the plane, Brownell Travel will present alternatives ahead of booking. 

"Everyone was concerned at the time of the crash and before it was pulled. People were scared," she said of the three days between the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the FAA grounding of the aircraft. "I don't think that is going to be any different now than it was then." 


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