No one knows how much longer the 737 MAX will remain grounded. Air Canada put a stake in the ground, however, and the initial expectations are not particularly optimistic. The carrier announced today that it removed the MAX from its schedules until 1 July 2019. The cuts are offset with additional aircraft where possible but some routes will be cut until the planes can return to service. The full list of changes is available from Air Canada’s website.
Adjusting operations to account for the grounded planes is no easy task. In some cases Air Canada simply does not have a plane viable to continue the service. Flights to London from Halifax and St. John’s are suspended owing to the 737 MAX grounding. Passengers are being rerouted through Montreal and Toronto as a result. Some routes with multiple frequencies are seeing consolidation to larger planes; three flights between Toronto and Vancouver become a single 777-300ER while the pair of flights between Vancouver and Honolulu now run on a single 787-8.
Other routes will see Rouge aircraft swap in, changing the inflight experience but still delivering passengers to the destinations. In some cases the carrier is extended the lease on planes scheduled to exit the fleet and accelerating the induction of new frames, such as those picked up from WOW Air. Air Canada even contracted with local competitor Air Transat to fly a Cancun trip in April.
Not all airlines are pulling the 737 MAX out of their schedules just yet. American Airlines and United Airlines continue to sell flights on the type, knowing that the MAX won’t operate those services. Perhaps those will disappear from the schedule this weekend with other scheduling updates. Keeping them on the books for now cannot be helping sales numbers.
While Air Canada is planning for the planes to be grounded until July it is not yet fully implementing its contingency scheduling for May and June. This leaves potential for a quick return to service, assuming Boeing‘s software updates are considered sufficient to address the pair of recent crashes. That remains a significant assumption, however, and not one that all global regulators are willing to trust the FAA on.
Questioning the FAA’s Certification Capabilities
When the FAA finally chose to ground the 737 MAX it was the last major national aviation authority to do so. The FAA’s move also came two days after it received the ADS-B tracking data from Aireon that others, including Transport Canada, relied upon to make similar decisions.
The turnabout came on the heels of what was first described as “refined data” being received from Aireon to help sway the decision. That position was later updated to “refined data analysis” to remove suggestion that the data had changed. But skepticism around the ability of the FAA to properly and appropriately manage and interpret the information remains higher than it probably should. Indeed, Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell explained that the FAA did not have the necessary skills and capabilities to interpret the data when it was first received:
The initial pattern that we saw that we came out very shortly after the incident, our experts analyzed it and the way it was presented, it was not credible movements of an aircraft. In other words, it was very rough, satellite based data return. This data came from a company called Aireon – Space-Based ADS-B which has a little higher latency rate than standard ADS-B.
What happened from last night to this morning was that the company itself, with the assistance of Boeing and NTSB, were able to refine the data and it is a process that Aireon knows and Boeing and NTSB are aware of that the—actually, the FAA does not possess this ability. So they got together, refined the rough radar track and, in the refinement in that track, it became clear to all parties, actually, that the track of the Ethiopian airline flight was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight.
Moreover, multiple parties have raised questions in recent weeks – before and since the Ethiopian crash – about just how much regulating the FAA is doing versus trusting Boeing to regulate itself. The Seattle Times report is particularly damning, highlighting pressures to maintain deadlines, even when resources and funding were lacking. The Department Of Transportation Inspector General is now opening an inquiry to the certification.
And, perhaps most troubling for Boeing and the FAA, Canada and Europe (EASA) indicated that they will independently verify the MCAS updates rather than accept certification from their US counterparts. Historically these countries would trust the certification work done by the others, reducing duplicative work and costs. That Canada and EASA now signal they are suspicious of US certification work could reset bilateral approvals well beyond just this incident. The shift comes just days after the US and EASA finalized deals further reducing certification fees and bureaucracy.