Max Jet Grounding: Airlines feel the pinch

With no certainty as to when the grounding of the B737 Max 8 aircraft will be be lifted, airlines are feeling the pinch.

The ban took effect soon after the crash of a jet operated by Ethiopian Airlines in March which happened five months after the crash of a Lion Air jet under similar circumstances.

Boeing is developing a software fix to the anti-stall system known as the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). It had hoped to implement this by May; this now looks unlikely.

Courtesy Boeing

Southwest Airlines, which is the biggest Max operator with a fleet of 34 jets, is extending Max cancellations through to August 5, and American Airlines with a fleet of 25 jets to August 19. Other airlines such as Air Canada which had expected to resume Max operations in July will have to follow suit.

Southwest which cancelled more than 10,000 flights reported a loss of US$200 million in revenue during the first quarter.

American Airlines, cancelling 155 flights a day, expected earnings to be hit by some US$350 million.

In a worse situation is Norwegian Air Shuttle which said its first quarter losses had widened to 1.49 billion kroners (US$172 million) from 46 million kroners a year ago. This is not helping the carrier’s plans to return to profitability as it has been forced to rebook passengers on other flights and rent alternative aircraft to maintain its schedule. Chief executive Bjoern Kjos expects the grounding to last till the end of August.

Now the question remains as to whether passengers will take readily to flying again the Max jet. More than 50 per cent of Americans had said they would not, even with the fix in place. It is not enough for Boeing to convince its airline customers. The bigger challenge lies in restoring the trust of the airline’s customers.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly had said while Southwest is an “all-Boeing carrier”, it didn’t mean the airline would use the 737s in “perpetuity”.

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B737 Max 8: Orders on the Line

After two fatal crashes involving the Boeing B737 Max 8 aircraft – one operated by Lion Air and the other by Ethiopian Airways – some Boeing customers have indicated they may cancel their orders of the plane.

Courtesy Getty Images

Garuda Indonesia which currently owns one of the jets became the first airline to seek cancellation of a multi-million dollar order for 49 aircraft.

Garuda spokesperson Ikhsan Rosan said: “The reason is that Garuda passengers in Indonesia have lost trust and no longer have the confidence.”

However, unlike Kenya Airways which said it may switch to Boeing’s rival Airbus, Garuda indicated it would consider other Boeing planes instead.

VietJet is another carrier which may cancel its US$25bn order.

On the other hand, WestJet announced it would stick with its orders. Spokesperson Lauren Steward said deliveries of up to 37 planes would take place after “the grounding has been lifted and the aircraft is approved for re-entry into service by all regulatory bodies.” The airline was supposed to add two more planes to its fleet this year.

Boeing expects work on a new software to be installed on the Max 8 to be ready by the end of the month. However, it is uncertain as to how long more the plane will remain grounded. This will be dependent on the investigations’ findings of the actual cause of the crashes, hence whether the fix that Boeing is currently working on is adequate.

To be expected, airlines that operate a large fleet of the Max 8 will want to see the aircraft put back into service. In the near term, they will have to grapple with their customers’ perception and confidence in the plane. (See Can Boeing regain travellers’ confidence in its B737 Max 8 Jet? March 17, 2019)

Air Canada for one is treading cautiously as it announced updating of its schedule until at least 1 July to give its customers “some certainty when booking and travelling”.

Joon: Basic yet chic

Courtesy Air France

What’s basic yet chic? That, says Air France, is the design of the uniform for cabin crew of its new subsidiary airline, Joon. You can expect to serve flight attendants in trendy casuals that include blazers, polos, ankle pants and sneakers. Apparently it is Silicon Valley inspired.

A statement issued by Air France said: “Its visual identity is based on an electric blue colour code symbolizing the airline’s dynamic attitude, as well as the sky, space and travel.”

Believe it, the colour has much to do with the kind of image projected by the airlines. Targeting millennials, Joon moves away from the convention of a neutral and sedate hue for something more in line with the outgoing disposition of younger jet-setters.

Many years ago when Singapore Airlines (SIA) launched a regional carrier called Tradewinds, there was much ado about the crew uniform to project the more casual mood of leisure travel – something you might wear on a vacation. That changed when its successor SilkAir took over to target business travel and other more serious travellers as well.

Courtesy Scoot

But it is Joon that is going completely millennial, right down to white trainers.

Courtesy Air Canada

Meantime, Air Canada is going retro. Its maple leaf logo design returns to the airline’s look 24 years ago, incorporating the circle loop. Black replaces red in the letterings on the aircraft, and flight attendantswill match with black uniform highlighted with a red tie or scarf.

Looks like you either go hip or nostalgic if you want to make a statement.

Humanizing the airline business

Never before was there so much publicity given to customers’ complaints about mistreatment by the airlines in North America ever since the David Dao incident when the seated passenger was forcibly removed from an United Airlines flight by security personnel. Stories of being bumped off a flight abound, and added to these other stories that include flight cancellations and misconnections, checking into an incorrect flight that took the passenger half way around the world, and death of a treasured animal in the cargo hold.

The beef is more about the way such a situation was handled by the airlines than the fact that it did occur. Take, for example, the incident of a 15-year old boy, technically classified as a minor, who was travelling from Denver to Thunder Bay via Toronto on Air Canada. He missed his connection when the flight out of Denver was delayed, and Air Canada duly rebooked him to fly to Thunder Bay the following day but did not offer any accommodation or vouchers for food.

Courtesy Air Canada

In an interview with BC News, Derrin Espinola said he felt “trapped… very hungry, very tired, very scared.” No one helped, even as he went from counter to counter to explain his situation. While Air Canada had issued a statement to say it was “truly sorry”, the blame appeared to have been placed on runway construction works at Toronto’s Pearson Airport and “exacerbated in this case by adverse weather”.

Was this really Espinola’s fault for having faith in the airline’s trusted his service? His mother, Karin Patock, who tried in vain to reach the airline by phone, said she chose Air Canada for its policy about flight delays as stated on its website: “Youths travelling alone (ages 12 to 17) will be taken care of by our agents. We will also arrange for accommodations, meals and transportation if needed.”

The spate of stories now made possible by the power of the social media may have caused many travellers to not believe that airlines in pursuing the dollar do really care for all that they boast to be better than their competitors. But they are beginning to listen, or so it seems as each time a nasty incident like this happens, they apologize readily and are said to be reaching out to the affected passengers and even compensating them as some form of amelioration for their distress, however irreparable.

In the case of denied boarding, which will continue to be practised by most of the airlines with the exception of JetBlue Airlines and Southwest Airlines in their stated policy, the major airlines have vowed to reduce overbooking and increased their compensation for volunteers who give up their seats.

Certainly the authorities have also taken note of the frustrations of passengers within the purview of their legislative responsibility to protect the rights of travellers.

Airline advertisements generally paint the romance of caring crew and other personnel to reduce the stress of travelling. Mind you, many of them do live up to their word. Recent incidents could signal a timely re-focus on procedural constraints and methodology in tackling difficult situations. The social media has given voice to travellers, and what is happening is a humanizing of the airline business as a reminder to carriers that they are dealing not with mere business numbers but people who deserve to be treated with dignity.

More offloading stories: What’s right, what’s wrong?

Suddenly, following the United Airlines incident of a passenger being forcibly removed from the aircraft in an overbooked situation (see The saga continues: United Airlines CEO promises no repeat of David Dao incident, Apr 14, 2017; United Airlines flew deeper into a PR storm, Apr 11, 2017; Fly the friendly skies? Not on United Airlines, Apr 10, 2017), air travellers are awakened to the harsh reality that even when they hold a fully-paid for confirmed seat, there is no guarantee they may not be bumped off.

Suddenly too, stories about more incidents of being bumped off are circulating via the social media.

#1
A passenger travelling with her husband and a child happily publicized a windfall when Delta Air Lines compensated her US$11,000 for giving up their seats.

Yes, Delta has announced a change in its policy to compensate volunteers an amount as high as US$10,000 for giving up their seats. More specifically, gate agents can offer up to US$2,000, up from the previous maximum of US$800, and supervisors can offer up to $9,950, up from $1,350.

That’s mighty generous of Delta, and why not if it means taking down the competition? However, a recently published list of the ten worst US carriers for overbooked flights did not list Delta, which means the offer may not be made as often as you might think.

Many people believe if United had upped the compensation, it would have been spared the bad PR patch it went through.

#2

Courtesy Air Canada

Just as soon as the Canadian authorities quickly reacted to the United debacle and vowed to protect consumers’ rights, a story surfaced of an incident on Air Canada of a 10-year-old child being denied boarding. His mother asked if an adult travelling with them could give up his seat for the child and was told that seat could not be guaranteed for the boy and would likely go to another passenger.

Oh, come on, Air Canada, to think this could happen in a country known for its people’s compassion!

The airline now said they were “following up to understand what went wrong” and that they had apologized to the family and offered a C$2,500 (US$1,866) voucher. If only airlines could understand how money cannot adequately make up for a disrupted holiday and the stress they caused, all the more in this case of separating a child and his parents.

#3
A couple posted their story of being asked to leave the aircraft of yet another United Airlines flight, and this was not a case of an overbooked situation. Apparently they found another passenger lying across their assigned seats, asleep, and decided to sit in a different row which happened to be “economy plus” seats . According to the crew, the couple tried to sit in an upgraded seat and refused to comply with instructions to return to their booked seats.

Well, well, it looks like anything United now does that displeases a passenger is wrong, even if it means following the rules. It is every traveller’s right to heed the call to boycott the airline after the way it treated passenger David Dao, but it is not fair to take advantage of the airline’s vulnerability.

Air Canada introduces seat auction for seat upgrading

Courtesy Air Canada

Courtesy Air Canada

FLYING with empty seats in the premium class in times of low demand is something all airlines have to live with. It often raises the question as to whether it is such a waste. Yet many of them would rather not compromise the product. Sometimes an airline may choose to selectively upgrade passengers for free – usually to frequent fliers – whether because it would release seats in an overbooked economy class or for goodwill.

Scandinavian Airlines used to offer the upgrade for a small fee at check-in when there are too many empty seats in the front of the aircraft. Some airlines announce the offer on board when most passengers are already seated. Indeed, why not make the extra bucks if it does not mean additional catering?

Air Canada piloted an online seat auction for upgrade late last year and apparently met with such success that it plans to fully implement the option. Mark Nasr, managing director of e-commerce, loyalty programs and ancillary revenue, said: “Because of customer demand, we’ve grown the product faster than we were originally intending to.”

However, Air Canada was not the first to do this. Virgin America reportedly was already testing an upgrade auction through an app called SeatBoost on its Las Vegas flights.

So, for bargain hunters, their dream of flying premium and not paying that much may well be within reach. True blue premium flyers may not have cause to complain since they are as less propensed to take the chance.

Air Canada jet gets narrower

Courtesy CBC

Courtesy CBC

I have no complaint flying Air Canada long haul when you get three hot meals. Not complaining this time either, but something seemed a little off the last trip from Vancouver to Shanghai.

My wife in the aisle seat had water spilled on her twice and the cart rammed into the seat. We switched seats, and this time I had quite a splash of water spilled right on to my lap as the attendant tried to open a bottle. The crew made a joke of it as one of them said she would note the seat number and not book her mother on that seat when she travels. No problem. The pants will dry by the time I arrived at my destination.

But the best (or should I say worst) was saved for the return trip when the passenger next to me spilled his glass of orange juice on to my pants all the way down to the shoes! One might think it was just my luck. However, talking to a fellow traveller about flying (not specifically related to the incidents), he said the seats on Air Canada have become narrower. And, of course, the tray table which cannot hold both a meal tray and a glass of orange juice. So too, I would add, the aisle. If you had to go the washroom, you might find it difficult to turn around after you had entered the tiny space.

Airlines – and not just Air Canada – are trying to squeeze in more seats. They should know that for the long haul, comfort still ranks as a key service aspect.