Southwest confident it will assuage fears about Boeing 737 Max jets

Southwest confident it will assuage fears about Boeing 737 Max jets

Southwest expects to encounter wary customers when the airline is eventually able to put grounded Boeing 737 Max aircraft back in the air. 

"There are certainly going to be some people who will probably book away for a time," Southwest president Tom Nealon said during the airline's Q1 earnings call Thursday. 

Nealon added that the carrier has been engaging with customers about the issue and has also been using contractors to research the matter. 

"I think we've got a really good handle on what our customers are thinking and feeling and what it is we should be doing," he said. 

All but one of Southwest's 34 Max planes are parked in Victorville, Calif. (the other is parked in Orlando), where they are awaiting clearance from the FAA to re-enter service. Max aircraft worldwide have been grounded since March 13 due to a pair of crashes that investigations indicated were caused by erroneous information transmitted from an aircraft sensor to the automated flight control system. A total of 346 people died in last October's Lion Air crash and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March. 

Southwest has pulled the Max from its flight schedule through Aug. 5. Once the FAA lifts the grounding, it will take approximately a month to get all of them updated and back in service, COO Mike Van de Ven said during Thursday's call. If any Max aircraft are able to return to the skies prior to Aug. 6, Southwest will use them as spares, he added.

Nealon emphasized that although he expects some flyers to steer clear of the Max, it doesn't mean those Southwest aircraft will be operating with extra empty seats. 

"I can tell you we will have a very comprehensive plan that communicates with our customers and our employees every step of the way," he said. 

The Max grounding, coupled with a dispute between Southwest and its mechanics, were major factors in the carrier cancelling more than 10,000 flights during the first quarter, the most the carrier has canceled in any quarter since the 9/11 attacks grounded the fleet in the third quarter of 2001, Van de Ven said. 

Those cancellations, combined with the government shutdown, harsh winter weather and soft leisure revenue factored into Southwest recording net income of $387 million for the quarter, a 16% drop. 

Nevertheless, Southwest's operating revenue jumped 4.1% to $5.1 billion, beating analyst expectations by $10 million, according to the website Seeking Alpha. The airline's earnings per share beat expectations by 8 cents.


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