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Southwest Airlines Nixes Boeing 737 Max Planes From Its Fleet Until April

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max aircraft are parked on the tarmac after being grounded, at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif., in March.
Mark Ralston
AFP via Getty Images
Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max aircraft are parked on the tarmac after being grounded, at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif., in March.

Updated at 6 p.m. ET

Southwest Airlines — which operates more Boeing 737 Max planes than any other domestic carrier — will suspend the troubled jetliner type from its flight rotation for a longer period than it originally planned.

The low-cost airline announced Tuesday it is "proactively" nixing the Max from its schedule until April 13. Southwest had earlier projected it would reintroduce the jetliners by early March.

The announcement comes a day after Boeing said it will temporarily halt production of the Max series beginning in January 2020. The aircraft-maker's Max series has been grounded worldwide following a pair of crashes — one in 2018 and another in March — that killed nearly 350 people combined.

For months, Boeing has been waiting for Federal Aviation Administration approval of Max software fixes and a subsequent "return to service" for the aircraft type. But as NPR's David Schaper reports, FAA certification is not expected until February 2020 at the earliest.

Southwest said its decision is "based on continued uncertainty" surrounding when the Max might get the FAA's go-ahead for takeoff.

"By proactively removing the MAX from scheduled service, we can reduce last-minute flight cancellations and unexpected disruptions to our Customers' travel plans," Southwest said in a statement.

Southwest said it was removing approximately 300 weekday flights from its typical peak-day schedule of more than 4,000 daily flights. It adds that the change will affect only a limited number of customers and that those who have already booked flights "will be notified of their re-accommodated travel."

The move by Southwest follows a similar one by American Airlines, which said last week it does not expect to have the Max planes back in rotation until early April 2020.

"Based on the latest guidance, American anticipates that the resumption of scheduled commercial service on American's fleet of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft will occur April 7, 2020," American Airlines said in a news release.

Ross Aimer, a retired commercial airline pilot who is the now CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, which tracks the aviation industry, tells NPR that airlines make their fleet plans years in advance and putting off a return to service for the Max planes might lead to higher airfare rates down the line.

"Simply a lot of headaches," Aimer says.

"They're losing a lot of seats they could have sold to us," he says. "And equally, the public will not have as many seats available to them. So this is not only bad for Boeing, it's bad for the airlines, bad for the public as well."

Southwest announced last week it had reached a "confidential agreement" with Boeing. In a statement the air carrier said the deal is "to compensate Southwest for a portion of projected financial damages related to the grounding of the airline's Boeing 737 MAX aircraft."

While the total compensation was not disclosed, the company also said it would share approximately $125 million with its employees through its profit-sharing program.

As NPR reported Monday, the 737 Max planes have been grounded since March, but Boeing continued to build new ones. Boeing said there are roughly 400 Max planes in storage. But with the protracted suspension, the company said it "decided to prioritize the delivery of stored aircraft and temporarily suspend production on the 737 program beginning next month."

NPR reported last week that Boeing had expected the jets would have a speedy return to service. The report added that Stephen Dickson, the FAA administrator, has been under pressure too. He is facing allegations from lawmakers that aviation regulators have a too-cozy relationship with Boeing, a company the agency regulates.

The FAA grounded the Max series on March 13, days after dozens of other countries issued similar mandates following the deadly Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 crash that killed 157 people. That crash happened less than five months after a 737 Max 8 operated by Lion Air crashed into the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia, killing all 189 people onboard.

Investigators say a faulty flight control system on the Max played a significant role in both crashes.

Boeing has developed proposed fixes for that and other problems, but the FAA and other regulators around the world have promised to take their time evaluating and testing those fixes, vowing they will not be rushed into returning the Max to service before they can ensure the plane is safe.

Before the crashes, Boeing had high hopes for the Max family of aircraft. At the beginning of the year, Boeing announced it was ramping up production of the planes to address "a seven-year order backlog."

Boeing said it set a new record by reaching 806 deliveries of its 737 series planes in 2018. It beat the previous record of 763 deliveries set in 2017.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.