Transport Minister had no choice but to ground planes, expert says

Transport Minister Marc Garneau had no choice but to ground Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, says a tourism expert at Royal Roads University.

The Canadian government’s announcement Wednesday follows similar moves by other countries in the wake of two crashes involving the aircraft — last Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash and a previous one in Indonesia in October. The U.S. grounded the planes shortly after the Canadian announcement.

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“It comes down to that whole idea of what is called the precautionary principle,” said Eugene Thomlinson, associate professor in the school of tourism and hospitality management at Royal Roads University.

“Sure, it might be a rare situation that has occurred, but if it does occur, it is so catastrophic that you don’t want to take the chance.”

Nearly 400 of the planes are normally in operation globally, Thomlinson said, so grounding Max 8s means that airlines will have to revisit their maintenance schedules as they try to continue regular service. Aircraft are required to be maintained and inspected regularly and airlines incorporate that into their operation plans.

The good news for passengers is that with the federal announcement that Max 8s are grounded, “people can make changes to their flights and not be penalized for it,” Thomlinson said.

A key reason for the popularity of the Max 8s is that are fuel efficient, which makes mid-to-long-range flights less costly than with other aircraft.

Keeping Max 8s out of the air will thus raise costs for airlines, which will be forced to use planes that burn more fuel, he said.

As well, airlines are now in a position of having invested in multimillion-dollar planes that they can’t fly. “That’s quite a bit of money tied up sitting there on the ground.”

Delays are inevitable while airlines re-purpose planes and move them to new locations where they are needed, said Thomlinson, who doesn’t expect people to be deterred from flying. “People in general, they are so confident — there are so many planes … that this one event won’t shake the flying public.”

Cathy Larsen, co-owner of Departures Travel in Sidney, said travel agents are busy rebooking clients affected by the grounding. “Airlines have been very accommodating and, of course, waiving the change fees.”

Larsen said even if clients are not flying on a 737 Max 8, they should check in online 24 hours prior to departure to confirm their seats and flight times.

She also suggests arriving at the airport two to three hours prior to departure.

Two airlines have used Max 8s for flights to and from Victoria International Airport — Sunwing was using them for its flights to Mexico, while WestJet deployed the planes on some of its domestic flights, to Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto.

Ed Sims, WestJet president and chief executive, said Wednesday the company was in the process of grounding the 13 Max aircraft in its fleet, and asked for understanding as it works to rebook passengers affected as quickly as possible. WestJet has 162 aircraft and says more than 92 per cent of its fleet remains in service.

The company said it is contacting affected travellers to make alternate arrangements.

Prior to the federal announcement, Sunwing had decided not to fly its four Max 8 aircraft, citing commercial reasons unrelated to safety, including airspace restrictions imposed elsewhere. It also noted that Max 8 planes make up less than 10 per cent of its fleet, saying it expects the impact of schedule changes to be minimal.

Although Air Canada does not use Max 8s in Victoria, travellers changing planes elsewhere might be booked on an affected flight.

The airline announced that fees will be waived for cancellation and rebooking for affected customers.

It urged passengers to check the status of their flights at aircanada.com before heading to the airport, and asked for patience, citing the large number of customers affected.

“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 airline said in a statement.

It said that it supports the Canadian government’s decision to ground the aircraft.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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