Two planeloads of passengers were at least temporarily stranded in Hawaii by today’s FAA order to ground Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.
Two United Airlines 737 Max 9 planes, which were flying inbound from Los Angeles to Hawaii when the FAA gave the order, are now parked indefinitely at state airports in Kahului and Kona. United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said the carrier had contingency plans and would swap aircraft to accommodate passengers on return flights.
But state Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara said “various other flights destined for Hawaii have been cancelled from the mainland or Canada.”
The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, which handles U.S. marketing for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, sent a statement to members today saying the grounding affects non-stop flights to Hawaii on United, Air Canada and WestJet – comprising 59,040 seats in March, or 1,905 seats a day.
Karen Wataru-Nakaoka, HVCB director of membership, said in the membership statement, “Airline industry experts are confident that airlines will be able to redeploy other aircraft to cover these routes but your customers may be affected in the short-term.”
Eleven flights to and from Hawaii daily use the MAX 8 or MAX 9 aircraft. Five Air Canada flights use MAX including: Honolulu to Vancouver, Kona to Vancouver, Lihue to Vancouver, Kahului to Vancouver and Kahului to Calgary. United flies MAX on five Hawaii routes, including: Honolulu to Los Angeles, Kona to Los Angeles, Kona to San Francisco, Kahului to Los Angeles, and Kahului to San Francisco. WestJet uses the MAX only on one flight between Kahului and Calgary.
The carriers left scrambling by today’s grounding are pursuing various options to meet consumer demand. Air Canada said it had rescheduled widebody aircraft to serve Hawaii starting today. United has said it would swap aircraft rather than cancel flights.WestJet said its swapping aircraft and making flight changes.
Flights on these 737 Max 8 or Max 9 planes serving Hawaii average only about 4 percent of the state’s North American air-seat capacity. Some travelers may be inconvenienced, but it is likely that most will be able to fly on other planes since Hawaii’s aircraft typically aren’t running 100 percent full.
The 737 Max 8 and Max 9 planes have come under intense scrutiny since Ethiopian Airlines’ accident last Sunday. The FAA said that a team is in Ethiopia assisting the National Transportation Safety Board as parties to the investigation of the Flight 302 accident.
FAA said today’s decision to ground Max 8 and Max 9 planes is the result of “new evidence collected at the site and analyzed today” together with “newly refined satellite data” available to FAA this morning.
The FAA said that the grounding will remain in effect “pending further investigation, including examination of information from the aircraft’s flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders.”
While Southwest uses more MAX aircraft than any other carrier, the grounding is not likely to interfere with Southwest Airlines’ long-anticipated launch of Hawaii service Sunday. Southwest Airlines only has 34 737 Max 8 jets in scheduled service — accounting for less than five percent of the carriers daily flights — and they haven’t yet been placed on the Hawaii schedule.
“During our 48-year history, Southwest has continuously demonstrated our commitment to safety,” said Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chairman and chief executive. “We sincerely appreciate the trust our customers and employees place in our airline every day, and the Southwest team is working diligently to minimize disruptions to our customers’ travel plans.”
It’s still too soon to determine if the grounding would impact any of Southwest’s future Hawaii opportunities. Southwest has said that it eventually planned to replace the 737-800 in Hawaii with the more fuel efficient 737 Max 8 planes, which would offer a longer flight range and potentially open new routes. But industry insiders looking a year out have said they don’t see MAX 8s on Southwest’s airline schedules for Hawaii.
Southwest currently has 34 of the 737 Max 8 planes in its fleet and at year-end had 219 firm orders for Max 8s from Boeing, Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said.
Southwest said it remains confident in the Max 8 after completing more than 88,000 flight hours accrued over 41,000 flights. But the carrier said that it “supports the actions of the FAA and other regulatory agencies and governments across the globe that have asked for further review of the data – including information from the flight data recorder – related to the recent accident involving the MAX 8.”