MONTREAL — Canadian travellers and airlines are in for a turbulent ride after Canada and the U.S. announced a ban on all Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft from Canadian airspace due to safety concerns.
"For a week or two, it will be bedlam and chaos," said Marvin Ryder, an assistant professor of marketing at McMaster University.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau told reporters Wednesday morning the decision to ground the planes was a precautionary move that was made after a review of the available evidence, three days after the Ethiopian Airlines disaster that killed all 157 people on board, including 18 Canadians.
Hours later, U.S. President Donald Trump announced an emergency order grounding all Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft in that country, effectively closing the skies to the more than 375 Max 8s currently in service across the globe.
More than 40 countries have now grounded or banned the Max 8 from their airspace over safety concerns and possible parallels to an Oct. 29 incident which saw the same type of aircraft plunge into the Java Sea, killing 189 people.
The latest suspensions come as thousands of Canadians are away on March break, stoking fears of stranded passengers and rebooking delays.
Adeel Khamisa said his family's United Airlines flight from Montreal to Los Angeles on an Air Canada-operated Max 8 plane was full last Saturday.
"All those people need to get home," said the Ottawa resident. "I'm getting passed around back and forth between two airlines, [each] saying it's the other's responsibility."
Jason Scarrotts, a father of two young children, said he was on the phone with Air Canada for 90 minutes before speaking with an agent to rebook their Max 8 flight from Vancouver to Palm Springs, only to be disconnected. "Please help," he tweeted.
Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd. confirmed Wednesday they were in the process of grounding their Max 8s.
Air Canada said it will grant affected customers on its roughly 75 daily Max 8 flights a full fee waiver — though that may not cover higher fares for a rebooked flight — along with "the ability to obtain a full refund."
"We are working to rebook impacted customers as soon as possible but given the magnitude of our 737 Max operations, which on average carry 9,000 to 12,000 customers per day, customers can expect delays in rebooking and in reaching Air Canada call centres and we appreciate our customers' patience," the company said in a statement.
WestJet said the grounding order will affect about 1,400 customers daily. The Calgary-based company said it will "attempt to rebook guests for no additional charge," but is sticking to a policy that could see passengers pay the difference in fares or fees for the changed ticket.
Air Canada has 24 Max 8s and WestJet has 13 — six per cent and seven per cent of their fleets of 400 and 175 aircraft, respectively.
The carriers use the commuter planes daily to ferry passengers on routes that include Vancouver-Calgary and Vancouver-Montreal as well as March break favourites such as Toronto-Puerto Vallarta and Vancouver-Honolulu.
Sun destinations for WestJet's Max 8s — which make about 35 flights each day — include the Florida hot spots of Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
Ryder estimates the ban could cost the two airlines $100 million collectively in the first 10 days.
"They don’t have another 24 jets just sitting parked somewhere that they can bring into service to cover it...They’ll have to cancel flights," he said.
Ryder explained the airlines may try to cut the number of flights on some routes and replace the Max 8 jetliners with larger planes.
Air Canada plans to swap in other aircraft on flights to Hawaii, Martinique and Guadeloupe, reroute some passengers through different airlines and cancel other flights, including those from Halifax and St. John's to London, all of which comes at a cost.
Air Canada's customer service line is 1-888-247-2262. Travellers are advised to check their flight status at aircanada.com.
WestJet's customer line is 1-888-937-8538, with flight status available at westjet.com.
Companies in this story: (TSX:AC, TSX:WJA)