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Boeing 737 Max Woes: What You Can Do if Your Flight Was Canceled

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United, American, and Southwest have all grounded their Boeing 737 Max planes into the fall.

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United, American, and Southwest have all grounded their Boeing 737 Max planes into the fall.

American, Southwest, and United are canceling their Boeing 737 Max flights into September, October, and November. Here’s everything you need to know about the potential change to your travel plans (and how you can advocate for yourself).

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“‘Due to the recent grounding of our Boeing 737 Max fleet, your flight . . . has been canceled. In order to rebook your itinerary, please contact your travel agency.’ If there’s a more stressful email to read as a trip fast approaches, I’ve yet to be sent it,” recalled AFAR senior editor Tim Chester. But that was indeed the email that dropped in Chester’s inbox from American Airlines in the run up to a weekend in New Orleans for Jazz Fest.

Chester had booked the flight through Expedia. The above notification was coupled with an already changed outbound flight from Los Angeles to New Orleans with Alaska Airlines (whose planes were being operated by American for the journey) that ensured he would arrive at a similar time. The only (pretty major) catch? It was leaving three hours earlier and was flying via Seattle. Getting to LAX at 6 a.m. to fly north (and then east) didn’t appeal to him.

“Twenty minutes on the phone with Expedia later and I’d managed to cancel that new, incredibly indirect option and was instead booked on a Delta plane following my original itinerary for the exact same price,” Chester recounted.

Unfortunately, his experience will not be all that uncommon during the busy summer travel season. American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines have all announced that they will not be operating their 737 Max aircraft into September, which means they will have fewer planes to work with this summer. Here are all the details and what you can do if your flight is impacted.

Why have the Boeing 737 Max aircraft been taken out of service?

On March 13, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an order for the temporary grounding of Boeing 737 Max aircraft by U.S. airlines. The decision came following the deadly Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash on March 10, involving a Boeing 737 Max aircraft, which killed all 157 people on board. The same aircraft was involved in a Lion Air crash in Indonesia last October that killed 189 people.

After regulators from around the world grounded the aircraft in the wake of the deadly crashes, the FAA too ultimately decided to ground the Boeing 737 Max planes as it worked to gather data and analyze evidence. To date, the FAA has not finalized that assessment and the airlines have decided to be proactive about rescheduling flights and re-accommodating passengers as they wait for further updates and direction from the FAA.

United States Will Join Other Countries in Grounding Boeing 737 Max Aircraft

How many aircraft are being taken out of service and for how long?

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American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines are the only three U.S. carriers with Boeing 737 Max planes in their fleet. They all immediately removed the aircraft from service on March 13, following the FAA’s order. But they have since updated their Boeing 737 Max policies to extend their groundings into the fall in an effort to reduce the need for inconvenient last-minute changes.

In a statement issued on June 13, Southwest Airlines told travelers that the airline would be keeping its 34 Boeing 737 Max planes (which account for 5 percent of the carrier’s fleet) out of service through September 2, as it awaits further instruction from the FAA. The airline has since extended that to October 1.

On April 14, American Airlines stated that it will be extending its cancellations for the Boeing 737 Max aircraft through August 19, which will translate into approximately 115 flights per day being canceled this summer (or about 1.5 percent of American’s daily flights), according to the carrier. On June 9, American further extended its cancellations of Boeing 737 Max flights through September 3.

In April, United Airlines pulled its Boeing 737 Max flights out of its schedule through early July. United has since extended that, saying it will remove the aircraft from its schedule until November 3. 

United has 14 of the 737 Max aircraft in its fleet. In a statement the carrier sent to AFAR, United said that while thus far it has been able to use “spare aircraft and other creative solutions” to help minimize the impact of the groundings on customers, “it’s harder to make those changes at the peak of the busy summer travel season.” In other words, United passengers should expect some flight alterations, too.

What are the airlines offering to impacted fliers?

For its part, American has stated that its reservations team will contact affected customers directly by email or telephone and that customers who booked through a travel agent will be contacted by their agency. For those customers who don’t want to rebook, American has stated that they may request a full refund by visiting aa.com/refunds.

Southwest has said that any customer affected by a Boeing 737 Max flight cancellation can rebook on alternate flights between the same destinations without paying any additional fees or fare differences. The carrier is proactively notifying impacted travelers of their changed travel plans, and a refund may also be requested.

United has simply stated that it will “take extraordinary steps to protect our customers’ travel plans.”

Southwest has informed its passengers that if they see this safety information card on their plane during the grounding, it doesn’t mean they are flying on a Boeing 737 Max, which shares a card with the 737-800.

Is there anything else impacted customers can do if they aren’t happy with the changes to their flight plans?

According to Christopher Elliott, founder of consumer advocacy nonprofit group Elliott Advocacy, customers don’t have to necessarily settle for the airlines’ initial offer in the event of a changed or canceled flight due to the Boeing 737 Max groundings.

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“Usually airlines, when they cancel a flight, they will quickly offer to rebook you. Those re-accommodations should be viewed with great skepticism,” said Elliott. Additionally, he said, “When [airlines] offer a full refund so close to your flight date, you can’t go out and buy another ticket because all the prices have gone up. So, it’s either like here’s this crappy-connection flight, or we’ll give you your money back.”

Instead, he advised impacted fliers to try to renegotiate. “If you see a better flight [airlines will often] re-accommodate you on a better flight,” he added.

He also noted that travelers could ask customer service representatives (or their supervisors) to “endorse the ticket to another airline,” which entails transferring the value of the ticket to another airline if the traveler finds a better replacement flight with another carrier. When on the phone with customer service, he said that being patient and polite will likely get travelers a lot further than being unfriendly and irritable.

Leaning on loyalty can help, too. Those travelers with frequent flier status with the airlines shouldn’t hesitate to mention that status when working to re-accommodate a flight.

What will be the fate of the Boeing 737 Max planes?

As the FAA continues its investigation into and assessment of the safety of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, the prevailing sentiment appears to be that it is only a matter of time before the planes will be back up in the air.

Upon announcing that American Airlines would be extending its cancellations for the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, American’s chairman and CEO Doug Parker stated that “based upon our ongoing work with the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, we are highly confident that the Max will be recertified prior to this time. . . . Once the Max is recertified, we anticipate bringing our Max aircraft back on line as spares to supplement our operation as needed during the summer.”

Indeed, Boeing is working overtime to convince regulators to let the plane fly again. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg stated in April that Boeing crews had flown nearly 100 flights to test a software update for the troubled 737 Max jet and that the company will conduct more test flights. Muilenburg said he has met with pilots and airline officials in the United States and abroad, holding flight-simulator sessions to demonstrate the software changes.

In April, the FAA met with safety representatives from United, Southwest, and American, as well as with the pilot unions for those airlines to get what the FAA described as a fuller understanding of the safety issues presented by the Boeing 737 Max.

The FAA has a dedicated web page where it is posting all of the developments and announcements about its ongoing investigation into the Boeing 737 Max. But the agency has not declared when it will likely be prepared to present its findings.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story. This article originally appeared online on April 18, 2019, and has been updated with new information.

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