By Jacob Passy
Air travelers planning trips in the weeks ahead may want to double check what kind of plane they’re set to fly on.
President Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. will ground Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 aircraft (NYS:BA) following the Sunday crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
With the announcement, the U.S. joins a growing number of countries that have grounded the aircraft as authorities investigate whether the plane itself played a role in last weekend’s disaster, which killed 157 people, and the October 2018 crash of Lion Air Flight 610, which killed 189 people. Before Trump’s announcement, the Federal Aviation Administration had maintained the stance that the aircraft was safe and did not recommend grounding it.
Other countries that have banned the aircraft from their airspace for now include the U.K., France, Germany, China, India and Australia.
The Boeing 737 Max was the plane involved in both crashes, leading some to speculate that a flaw in the aircraft itself could have played a role. However, other aviation safety experts have argued that pilot error, and not the plane and its software, is more likely to blame for the two tragedies.
‘Definitely call and check the status of your reservation and ask about your re-booking options. Flights are more likely to cooperate given the public outcry.’
—Tracy Stewart, content editor at Airfarewatchdog
With so many countries now barring the aircraft from flying, delays and cancellations could grow as airlines scramble to reassign flights to other planes in their fleet. Here is what air travelers should know and expect in the foreseeable future:
Your flight may be delayed or cancelled
Airlines have a limited fleet to work with — increasing the likelihood that cancellations or delays may occur as they work to move any unused planes into service to replace the ground Boeing 737 Max aircraft.
“Most airlines do not have the capacity to use other planes to carry extra passengers; airlines do not typically have an extra aircraft for every flight,” said Henrik Zillmer, CEO of AirHelp , a company that facilitates pasenger compensation for delayed or cancelled flights. “If airlines act fast and look ahead, they could avoid further chaos by potentially reassigning flights. However, without proactive action, this situation could lead to cancelled or overbooked flights, and ultimately, boarding denials.”
Before Trump’s announcement, Zillmer predicted that chaos could erupt in Europe as passengers hastened to rebook affected flights.
The good news is that the fallout from this chain of events will be somewhat limited, as there were only 350 Boeing 737 Max 8s in service globally, said Tracy Stewart, content editor at travel deal site Airfarewatchdog.
Most airlines do not have the capacity to use other planes to carry extra passengers
—Henrik Zillmer, CEO of AirHelp
Still, some airlines may be more adversely affected than others. Southwest Airlines (NYS:LUV) had more Max 8 aircraft, with 34 of the planes in service, than any other American carrier, meaning it will have to work that much harder to reassign flights. Even before the U.S. grounded the aircraft though, Southwest was letting passengers rebook on another aircraft.
In a statement Wednesday, Southwest said the 737 Max aircraft accounted for less than 5% of its flights each day. Customers booked on cancelled 737 Max flights will be able to rebook on alternate flights without any additional fees or fare differences within 14 days of their original date of travel between the two original destinations. “While we remain confident in the MAX 8 after completing more than 88,000 flight hours accrued over 41,000 flights, we support the actions of the FAA and other regulatory agencies and governments across the globe,” the company said.
United Airlines (NAS:UAL) said that around 40 flight a day are served by the company’s 14 MAX aircraft typically. ”Through a combination of spare aircraft and rebooking customers, we do not anticipate a significant operational impact as a result of this order,” a United spokesman said. “We will continue to work with our customers to help minimize any disruption to their travel.”
American Airlines (NAS:AAL) said it has 24 aircraft affected by Trump’s order and that it will “make every effort to rebook customers as quickly as possible.”
“Definitely call and check the status of your reservation and ask about your rebooking options,” Stewart said. “Flights are more likely to cooperate given the public outcry.”
Consumers could be hard-pressed to get compensation if their flight is cancelled
Policies regarding compensation for delayed or cancelled flight vary from country to country and airline to airline. But even in places with the most comprehensive compensation policies, travelers could be out of luck if the Boeing 737 Max grounding situation affect their flight.
For instance, in the European Union, regulation stipulates that passengers whose flight arrival at its final destination is delayed by three or more hours are entitled to compensation totaling between 250 and 600 euros based on the flight distance and the delay’s length.
However, airlines are not required to provide compensation if the cancellation was caused by “ extraordinary circumstances .”
“This is considered an extraordinary circumstance under most consumer travel regulations such as the European passenger law EC 261 and the international regulation Montreal Convention, and are situations in which travelers are not eligible for compensation,” Zillmer said, referring the Boeing 737 Max grounding.
In European Union states, travelers would still be entitled to reimbursement for their airfare or re-routing, among other forms of relief, despite not receiving compensation. That’s not necessarily the case in the other countries that have grounded the aircraft. For instance, in the United States, there are no federal requirements for steps that airlines must take in such a situation.
Travel insurance won’t necessarily help you recoup any losses
If a given country’s laws don’t protect air travelers, travel insurance may not be of much help either.
“Standard travel insurance policies typically don’t provide cancellation coverage for situations like this, including travel warnings and other government issued advisories,” said Steven Benna, a marketing specialist with travel insurance comparison website Squaremouth. “Usually, the only coverage available for grounded flights is due to a mechanical failure of the aircraft or inclement weather.”
To see if their insurance will cover a cancelation, consumers should see if the policy includes a “Common Carrier Delay” clause, according to travel insurance comparison site InsureMyTrip.com.
Standard travel insurance policies typically don’t provide cancellation coverage for situations like this.
—Steven Benna, a marketing specialist with travel insurance comparison website Squaremouth
However, stranded travelers may be entitled to reimbursements through their travel insurance policy if it includes benefits tied to travel delays. Among the expenses that consumers could get covered include additional meals or accommodations needed due to the delayed or cancelled flight.
Consumers will also be covered if they have purchased a “Cancel for Any Reason” policy — this form of travel insurance would even cover cases where a traveler decides to cancel a vacation proactively because they are afraid of flying on a Boeing 737 Max plane.