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What the Boeing Max 8 groundings could mean for summer travel

With summer holidays approaching, the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max has some industry experts advising flyers to book early. (The Canadian Press)

With summer fast approaching, vacation plans beckon.

But as the high season draws near for Canada’s travel industry, there’s been little rest for the country’s largest airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, which have been busy preparing for the holidays minus their Boeing 737 Max jetliners.

The planes have all been grounded since March following two fatal crashes involving the model, and there’s still no timetable for when they’ll return to service.

The situation has prompted Air Canada and WestJet to shuffle operations to accommodate travellers through the weeks, and perhaps months, to come.

Their efforts have some travel agents confident air travel this summer won’t seem much different than last year.

But if the Max aircraft aren’t cleared for takeoff in the next few weeks, other industry watchers anticipate seat capacity will tighten this holiday season — and not just in Canada.

If travel demand is strong, fares could see a little upward bounce, said independent aviation analyst Rick Erickson. 

“If you’re in a circumstance where you can make some decisions now on your travel, I’d get out and do it.”

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Two Air Canada Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft are seen on the ground as an Air Canada Embraer aircraft flies in the background at Toronto Pearson International Airport in March. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

The 737 Max jetliner’s flight control system has been under scrutiny following two deadly crashes within a six-month period: a Lion Air flight off the coast of Indonesia in October and an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March.

The two crashes killed a total of 346 people, including 18 Canadians on board the Ethiopian Airlines flight.

In March, Canada joined other countries worldwide in grounding all Boeing 737 Max aircraft until further notice. In addition to satisfying all safety concerns, Transport Canada is requiring Canadian airlines that operate the Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 aircraft to implement new procedures and provide additional crew training. 

Air Canada’s 24 Max 8 jetliners comprise about 20 per cent of its narrow-body fleet and carry between 9,000 and 12,000 passengers per day.

WestJet has 13 Max 8 aircraft, which make up seven per cent of the airline’s total fleet and represent 10 per cent of its total capacity this year.

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Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Air Canada announced in late April that it has removed the 737 Max from its flight schedule through to Aug 1.

The airline says it had between three and four per cent less seat capacity in the first quarter of the year due to the grounding.

To manage the shortfall, the airline has been adjusting route operating times and flying fewer flights between destinations but with larger aircraft.

The airline says it has also sped up its plans to add aircraft and extended leases on planes that were originally scheduled to leave the fleet.

‘Full confidence’

Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah said in an email earlier this week that the airline is making arrangements with Lufthansa and finalizing arrangements with other airlines “to temporarily operate certain flights on Air Canada’s behalf.”  

“Customers can book their travel on Air Canada with full confidence,” Mah said.

WestJet is also taking steps to mitigate the impact.

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‘The grounding of the aircraft becomes more challenging as we approach high season,’ says WestJet CEO Ed Sims. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

At the company’s annual meeting last week, CEO Ed Sims said the airline is utilizing all of its available aircraft as “heavily” as it can.

“We had a number of … aircraft that were due for reconfiguration; we were changing the seats inside those aircraft,” he told reporters.

“We’ve now cancelled that reconfiguration and making sure that we have all available aircraft.”

Sims said the grounding of the Max 8 becomes more challenging as the high season approaches. Asked what the situation might mean for flight availability, Sims said it was too early to tell.

“I think people are going to have to ensure that they’re booking earlier and are trying to adapt a more flexible approach to the time — and even potentially the destination — of their choice,” he said.

Addressing airfares, he said WestJet is operating as it would under normal circumstances.

“We have not really re-evaluated the opportunity simply because there are fewer seats available,” he said. “We want to make sure that we maintain competitive airfares for travellers even through peak season.”

Still, some observers say this probably won’t be the season for flyers to drag their feet on booking their flights.

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University of Manitoba transportation expert Barry Prentice has some advice for anybody planning a trip this summer: Book it sooner rather than later. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

“I think if you’re going to be travelling in summer for sure — you know there’s a wedding you’re going to or something — book right now,” said Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba.

“Book it, because I don’t think it’s necessarily going to get any cheaper, at least not in July.”

‘Not as dire as some may expect’

Still, travel agents say because of the efforts of the airlines, they don’t believe there will be a serious capacity crunch this summer.

Allison Wallace, a spokesperson for the Flight Centre Travel Group in Vancouver, lauded the airlines for the work they’ve done.

“The carriers have done an amazing job of minimizing the impact and completely reshuffling their networks to operate as close to original planned capacity as possible, so the situation is not as dire as some may expect,” she said in an e-mail.

Sandra Tompkins, a travel consultant with TierOne Travel in Calgary, said people haven’t been booking any earlier than usual so far, and there are still a lot of options.

“There’s a lot of seat sales that have been coming out one after the other,” she said.

“I still think that there’s going to be plenty of availability for people booking.”

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