Air Canada, WestJet push back return of Boeing 737 Max until early spring

TORONTO — Canada’s two biggest airlines are keeping the grounded Boeing 737 Max off their flight schedules for at least the next two months in a move that could impact passengers already slated for spring getaways and cut down on flight options for travellers looking to book.

Air Canada said it recently opted to push back the return of the Boeing jet through March 31. WestJet said it has pulled its 13 Max planes from the schedule until March 4.

The federal government banned the 737 Max from the skies last March following two fatal crashes in five months that saw the plane grounded worldwide.

The airlines’ decision marks the latest in a series of delays that have reduced revenue and capacity and bumped up costs for the carriers, which have had to spend more on leases for aircraft that are less fuel-efficient.

The 36 Max aircraft was slated to make up one-quarter of Air Canada’s narrow-body fleet by the end of this 2019, with 14 more initially scheduled to arrive this year. WestJet was on track to receive two last year and two in 2020.

Delivery has now been put off pending a green light from regulatory authorities, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

“Both carriers would have expected by now to have started to harvest and reap the rewards of a transition to that fleet type,” said Robert Kokonis, president of Toronto-based consulting firm AirTrav Inc.

“If it is the case that every individual aircraft has got to be inspected as well, then that’s a long process, because the FAA is lacking in those resources.”

The grounding has not just scrambled schedules and piled on costs, but hampered growth plans.

“WestJet and Air Canada, like a lot of other carriers around the world, have been eyeing the Max…to open up a whole new series of routes that hitherto were not economical for a larger wide-body or were not within the range of a regular narrow-body,” Kokonis said.

Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have scrubbed the once heavily coveted plane from their schedules until early-to-mid April, while United Airlines has put off its return until early June.

“I would be very surprised if either of those March dates are possible,” Kokonis added, referring to Air Canada and WestJet.

Air Canada’s 12 undelivered Max aircraft now sit on Boeing lots, delaying the company’s hiring of pilots — it currently has about 400 Max pilots, relegated to training for the time being.

“We have been continually monitoring the situation and adjusting our schedule accordingly,” Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email.

Neither Canadian airline would disclose if it was willing to join American Airlines in sharing part of potential compensation from Boeing with employees.

Last month Boeing suspended production of the 737 Max as hopes of getting one of its flagship jets back in the air continued to fade.

The Max 8 crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia killed a total of 346 people on board, including 18 Canadians.

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