Two planes with passengers on board were temporarily stranded in Hawaii Wednesday after the Federal Aviation Administration ordered the grounding of Boeing 737 Max aircraft.
The United Airlines 737 Max 9 planes from Los Angeles couldn’t make scheduled return flights and are parked indefinitely at state airports in Kahului and Kona.
United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said the airline got Kona passengers out on other airlines Wednesday, and sent four other planes to Kahului to fly passengers out Wednesday and today. A Boeing 777 is slated to depart from Kahului at 11 a.m. today to accommodate remaining passengers, he said.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara said, “Various other flights destined for Hawaii have been canceled from the mainland or Canada.”
The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, which handles United States marketing for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, sent members a statement saying that the grounding affects nonstop flights to Hawaii on United, Air Canada and WestJet — which comprise some 59,040 seats in March or 1,905 seats a day.
Eleven daily flights to and from Hawaii use the Max 8 or Max 9 aircraft. That accounts for about 4 percent of the state’s North American air seat capacity. However, industry insiders say other planes should absorb most of the passenger overflow.
Heightened consumer fears about flying or potential inconvenience could become short-term issues for Hawaii, which is mainly a fly-to destination, said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, a top wholesale travel agency.
“We’re getting deluged with phone calls from customers and travel agents,” Richards said. “When you disrupt the travel patterns of Americans, they don’t like it.”
Richards said it’s too soon to fully assess the impact to Hawaii.
“Customers hear 737 and they are afraid — they don’t know the difference in the planes,” Richards said.
Still, he said customers could bounce back quickly, as they did after the 2013 grounding of 787s due to a battery issue.
“I don’t think that there’ll be a long-term impact to Hawaii, but we’ll definitely see a short-term impact. It’s coming during what was already a very, very slow first quarter compared to last year and even worse when you look at Hawaii island,” he said.
The 737 Max 8 and Max 9 planes have come under scrutiny since the fatal crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on Sunday. That crash was preceded by the October crash of a Lion Air Boeing Max 8 plane in Indonesia.
Boeing released a statement saying it had “full confidence” in the safety of the 737 Max jets, but in “an overabundance of caution” supported the FAA decision to temporarily suspend operations of the 737 Max aircraft’s entire fleet.
The FAA said Wednesday that its decision to ground the 737 Max jets came after new evidence found at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, and the grounding would remain in effect “pending further investigation.”
The FAA action came just after Canada’s decision to ground 787 Max jets. The abrupt decision left the carriers that use these jets in Hawaii scrambling. Air Canada, which has 24 of the Max jets, said it had rescheduled wide-body aircraft to serve Hawaii starting Wednesday. United, which has 14 Max jets, and WestJet, which has 13 Max jets, said they would swap aircraft and make flight changes.
Southwest Airlines, which has planned its long-anticipated launch of Hawaii service for Sunday, has 34 of the 737 Max 8 jets. But aviation insiders say the grounding is not likely to interfere with Southwest’s Hawaii debut because 737 Max 8 jets account for less than five percent of the carrier’s daily flights — and the company hasn’t even placed them on the Hawaii schedule.
Richards said he’s not privy to Southwest’s inner workings, but speculated that a protracted grounding could push back the timing of the carrier’s second phase of Hawaii service, which includes Lihue, Sacramento, and San Diego.
“They’ve got to replace 34 planes — that’s a lot,” he said.
Southwest said that it only canceled five flights Wednesday as a result of the grounding of its 737 Max 8 jets, but declined to comment on its future plans.
Still, the carrier has said that Hawaii is its key 2019 priority. It had also hinted at future expansion by revealing plans to eventually 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.
Industry insiders, looking a year out, said they don’t see MAX 8s on Southwest’s airline schedules for Hawaii.
However, at the end of 2018, Southwest had 219 firm orders for MAX 8s from Boeing, as well as lease agreements for an additional 19 MAX 8s. The carrier had options for 115 additional MAX 8s from Boeing that it can exercise at its discretion. It also had firm orders for 30 MAX 7s from Boeing, with flexibility to convert 23 of those to MAX 8s.
Isle routes affected by 737 Max groundings:
>> Honolulu to Vancouver
>> Kona to Vancouver
>> Lihue to Vancouver
>> Kahului to Vancouver
>> Kahului to Calgary
>> Honolulu to Los Angeles
>> Kona to Los Angeles
>> Kona to San Francisco
>> Kahului to Los Angeles
>> Kahului to San Francisco
>> Kahului to Calgary