As Max grounding drags on, airlines feel the pinch

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Air Canada CFO Mike Rousseau said the 737 Max grounding has been "frustrating to manage and has consumed a great deal of very valuable management time."
Air Canada CFO Mike Rousseau said the 737 Max grounding has been "frustrating to manage and has consumed a great deal of very valuable management time."

When aviation authorities worldwide grounded the Boeing 737 Max back in March, airlines scrambled to accommodate what they assumed would be a temporary hit to their bottom lines.

But over the months, as it became clear that recertification of the Max would require lengthy delays for remediation and testing, carriers have increasingly issued dire warnings about the impact on their bottom lines. 

In February, a month before the grounding, Air Canada had planned to offer nearly 5 million seats this year on Max planes. But by early August, with the grounding expected to extend into Q4, according to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, the carrier was scheduled to fly just 1.7 million Max seats this year, the flight data analytics company OAG said.

On the carrier's July earnings call, chief commercial officer Lucie Guillemette said the March 13 grounding of Air Canada's 24 Max 8 planes had forced the airline to make up for the shortfall by deferring nonessential maintenance, extending aircraft leases, entering into new leases, arranging for early delivery of other aircraft types and leveraging capacity on its low-cost unit, Air Canada Rouge.

With these adjustments, Air Canada was able to cover 97% of its planned second-quarter flying. But like other Max operators around the world, Canada's largest airline expects its Max problems to become worse over the remainder of the year, as the additional 12 Max aircraft it had expected to take delivery of by Jan. 1 leave an even larger hole for network planners to fill.

As a result, for the first time in the memory of CFO Mike Rousseau, the carrier expects to fly fewer seats year over year during its bread-and-butter summer quarter. 

"It has been extremely frustrating to manage and has consumed a great deal of very valuable management time," Rousseau said on the earnings call.

The escalating difficulties voiced by Air Canada were echoed by Max operators around the world this earnings season. Carriers that had once hoped they could weather a short-term grounding by taking the types of steps Air Canada did are now acknowledging that the effects of the grounding will last through next summer and beyond. 

Notably, Southwest said last month that as of Nov. 3, it will pull out of Newark, where it offers up to 37 flights per day, so that it can reallocate its lower-than-expected capacity toward more lucrative markets, especially Hawaii. 

Southwest, which was flying 34 Max 8s before the grounding, was scheduled to take delivery of an additional 41 of the planes this year. In their absence, the carrier expects its capacity to be 11% less than planned during the fourth quarter. 

Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair, meanwhile, said it is now planning to be able to fly just 30 Max aircraft next summer, rather than the 58 it had been anticipating. As a result, CEO Michael O'Leary said during an earnings call, the carrier is developing plans to close some bases beginning this winter. 

O'Leary also delivered a video message to Ryanair employees on July 31 warning of upcoming layoffs, in part because of the airline needing approximately 600 fewer pilots and flight attendants next summer than it had expected due to the delay in Max deliveries.

Closer to home, United, which had 12 Max aircraft at the time of the grounding, said that as scheduled deliveries are delayed, it expects to increase daily Max-related cancellations from about 45 in July to 90 in October. United also said it would suspend service between Chicago and Leon, Mexico, because of the Max grounding. 

Aviation industry analyst Seth Kaplan said that since the grounding originally rocked the airline industry, the nature of the difficulties it is causing have changed.

"The problems now are less chaotic but bigger," Kaplan said. "At first, airlines were scrambling; now they are making the changes in advance."

Conversely, he said, at the time of the grounding, 387 Max aircraft were flying. But with deliveries that were to have been made since then, airlines worldwide are now having to manage an absence of more than 600 Max aircraft. 

OAG data shows just how much the grounding has impacted capacity across the global airline industry. 

In February, the analysis shows, airlines had planned to offer nearly 63 million seats on Max aircraft this year. By Aug. 5, that number was down to just over 21 million, a loss of 41.3 million seats.

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