Travel advisors tangled in Boeing crisis

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China Southern Boeing 737 Max 8
China is one of the countries that has grounded Boeing 737 Max 8 planes. Pictured, a China Southern Max 8. Photo Credit: Kittikun Yoksap/Shutterstock

Following the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash on Sunday, some travel advisors have found themselves explaining the difference between Boeing 737 aircraft in general and the specific model that crashed, the 737 Max 8.

The Ethiopian Airlines crash was the second in five months involving a 737 Max 8. In October, a Lion Air plane crashed into the Java Sea 12 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta. All 189 passengers and crew were killed.

As a result, several countries have grounded the 737 Max 8, including China, the U.K. and Germany.

Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Business Travel in Bel Air, Md., said there is some consumer confusion about the class of aircraft and the Max 8 specifically.

"Most airline websites aren't that specific in identifying the aircraft beyond 737," Ellenby said. "Internally, we have made sure our agents understand how to identify correctly within the GDS."

Thus far, one of Safe Harbors' clients who travels frequently in Africa has requested not to fly on a 737 Max 8, he said.

Brian Chapin, senior director of air and travel solutions for Ensemble Travel Group, said that the consortium has received "a few questions from member agencies and their clients" about the 737 Max 8.

"It is important to note that the 737 is a very popular aircraft with various models and configurations, and that it appears that only the 737 Max 8 has been impacted," Chapin said. "We are staying in touch with our airline partners as well as keeping a watchful eye, and will be guided by recommendations from the NTSB and FAA. Airlines go to great lengths to operate in a safe manner, but it is ultimately the customer's decision to make as to their comfort level when traveling."

Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel in Villanova, Pa., said some clients have expressed unease about flying on a 737 Max 8.

"We have had a handful of clients with concerns, and we accommodate those concerns by advising them of the type of aircraft they are flying on and what alternatives may exist," he said. "While clients who are currently booked on 737s are bound to the terms and conditions to which they have booked, we honor all client wishes and work with them to travel as comfortably as possible. In some cases, this has been canceling and rebooking on alternative flights."

Bush estimated the agency has received fewer than 10 requests to avoid the aircraft, mostly happening before clients were ticketed, but Avenue Two's air team is up to date on the situation.

"We felt it was better to prepare our team to be in the know as travel advisors and be ready to handle such questions as they arise," he said.

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