What Airlines Are Doing For Customers Who Don’t Want to Fly the 737 MAX (And Why I’m Not Worried Yet)

Regulators are risk-averse. There’s almost nothing for a regulator to gain by not banning something that could be dangerous that turns out not to be. However they’re going to face significant blame if something bad comes to pass and they did nothing.

So it’s not surprising to see country after country ground the Boeing 737 MAX in light of the tragic Ethiopian Airlines incident. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency has now grounded the MAX. However the FAA has not. Outside of Aeromexico North American airlines continue to stand by the aircraft.

We Know Too Little About What Happened to the Ethiopian Plane

We do not know yet what is at issue in the Ethiopian investigation. Even if the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system pushed the plane’s nose down as a result of faulty readings, every 737 MAX pilot is very much aware of this system and how to disable it, did they attempt to do so? If not, why not, and if they did what was the problem?

There have been two occurrences within 5 months of each other for a new aircraft and that’s concerning. It’s hardly unprecedented — for aircraft deemed reliable like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 787. Right now we’re dealing with fear of the unknown though of course Boeing 737 MAX aircraft remain statistically safer than driving and operate safely every day. Indeed they’re safer than aviation in the US used to be, when we flew every day.

Why Aren’t We Hearing More About United’s 737 MAX?

American and Southwest are getting the bulk of the attention since the occurrence aircraft were Boeing 737 MAX 8s and that’s the plane they operate. United flies the Boeing 737 MAX 9. Since we don’t actually know the probable cause of the Ethiopian incident, we don’t know if it’s something that would apply equally to the MAX 9.

How Do You Know If You’re Flying the MAX, and What If You Want to Change?

It doesn’t surprise me that the FAA hasn’t grounded the aircraft. It won’t surprise me if they do. In the meantime, customers are asking how do I know if I’m on an 737 MAX? and will my airline let me change my flight to avoid one?

  • Aircraft are generally listed when you’re booking your flight, on your itinerary, and in flight schedules. American and Southwest use “7M8” as the three letter code in their schedules.
  • But aircraft get swapped, you might book a Boeing 737-800 and wind up with a MAX at your gate.
  • You can compare seat maps but American is increasingly converting their 737-800s to have the same interior as the MAX (only days ago we were talking about poor retrofit work that had grounded 14 737-800s).
  • Neither Southwest nor American offer formal waivers for customers who want refunds or changes due to aircraft type. (Although I’ve never had an issue with American when they swap a plane and a customer says they aren’t happy with what’s scheduled, at least after escalating the matter, but that’s a different situation.)

In my experience if you’re at the airport and afraid to fly and want to take a later flight (in this case on a different aircraft) you’ll probably be allowed to do so.

Southwest is being quite explicit that they will work with passengers.

Some have noted the irony that American Airlines flight attendants who are afraid to fly the MAX don’t have to work it but customers aren’t formally being given options. Of course it’s in the flight attendant contract.

When I’d Start Being Concerned About Flying the MAX

The flight attendants’ union has now called on the airline to ‘strongly consider’ grounding the aircraft. The pilots’ union has not done so. Grounding the plane means fewer flights flown by their members, and while individual pilots have their opinions the union isn’t in the business of limiting hours for their members. If the pilot unions begin to call for a grounding that would be a signal I’d pay attention to.

At the moment though is it reasonable to avoid the MAX, all else equal? Sure. Is it reasonable to take a connecting itinerary — two takeoffs and landings, each with its own (very modest) risk — to avoid a non-stop on the MAX? I’m not so sure.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. American lets you change your ticket, after a change in aircraft, for no fee, but you have to pay any fare difference.

  2. @James H- yes I mention change in aircraft [even getting a refund in my experience] but here we’re most interested in what if you are already booked onto a MAX [no change in aircraft]

  3. Question- the flight attendants don’t get paid if they don’t fly either, so where is the difference in whether it is the FA union or pilot’s union calling for it? Wouldn’t more FA be affected if they ground the plane since there are usually more FA than cockpit folks on flights (3-4 FA, one pilot and one FO)? I honestly don’t know if there is some difference.

    Even if the FA union has it down that a FA can refuse to fly on a certain plane due to safety concerns, that cannot possibly mean they get paid regardless, right? Just that they can ask for reassignment without getting fired. E.g. they still need to work to get paid so they’d overall lose money if half AA’s fleet is grounded (exaggerated for hyperbole).

  4. When I tried to get the fare difference waived and placed on another flight not operated by the 737 MAX, Southwest Airlines wont do it for flights after this coming Monday. I have flights scheduled on the MAX June 4 and August 16th. They would not waive the fare difference for either trips. I spoke with their corporate offices as well. Totally unacceptable.

  5. More and more aviation authorities are flipping. Speculation warning: I suspect that flight pilots have not been sufficiently briefed on non-traditional feature in 7M planes supposedly engineered for safety, triggering the accident. The insiders may even know the real cause already and it is damage control time.

  6. Although it seems like a lifetime ago, to me this is reminiscent of the British Comet crashes. Two or three of them were mysteriously blown from the sky. The British authorities insisted the plane was safe and refused to ground them. But they were later grounded after yet another catastrophic accident. In this instance, it turned out to be a serious design flaw in the windows/fuselage. I pray that history doesn’t repeat itself.

  7. My daughter has a flight from DCA to MIA next Saturday scheduled with the B737Max.
    I am AA EP, so I called AA two different times asking them to please change my daughter flight to any other not operated by the B737Max on the same day and both times they rejected my request.
    I am not taking any chances so I went ahead and bought her a new ticket flying an Airbus 319.

  8. Re: Neal

    The Comet situation was extremely complicated in large part because the plane was so novel.

    The first accident, BOAC Flight 783 crashed with all hands after departing Calcutta during a violent thunderstorm. The plane completely disintegrated and there was a fire which made it impossible to determine the cause.

    The report suggested the airframe had been overstressed during extreme turbulence rather than being a failure of design, so the plane was not withdrawn.

    The second accident was BOAC Flight 781 out of Rome which exploded over the ocean. BOAC immediately withdrew the Comet 1 from service waiting for the results of the investigation. Only a small amount of wreckage was recovered from the ocean (and there were no flight recorders). It was clear the plane had decompressed, but the cause was unknown – explosives were ruled out, but it was thought most likely that a turbine might have exploded – a particular risk with the Comet’s engines nestled close to the fuselage in the wing. DeHavilland promised to strengthen the housing of the engines on all new Comets and to retrofit the existing fleet.

    As soon as the modifications were made to the BOAC fleet, the plane re-entered service; two weeks later South African Airways Flight 201 exploded after leaving Rome. At this point the UK government withdrew the certification and grounded the Comet. This time almost no wreckage was recovered, but a re-examination of the wreckage of Flight 781 and the sacrifice of a further airframe called Yoke Uncle in destructive testing revealed the real problem lay with the fuselage which was too fragile.

    The Comet 1 was never recertified; the Comet 2 which was just entering service only went to the military after heavy modifications; the Comet 3 which would have longer range and bigger capacity was scrapped since it didn’t have a strengthened fuselage; so the next Comet was the Comet 4 – a superb, safe airliner – but just too small and too late to compete against the 707 and DC-8.

  9. @Gary Leff, Please realize that your bias against regulation is affecting your judgement and objectivity on this 737 Max issue.

  10. If I were booked on a Max 8 I wouldn’t be afraid to fly on it, but I’d change if possible anyway, if only because of the likelihood of them being grounded.

  11. @john on the contrary you’d expect if I were ‘biased’ against regulation I’d want industry to ‘self-regulate’ and here I just want to follow the facts not the mob.

  12. I wonder if the FAA would have grounded the plane if it was an Airbus. They don’t seem to want to ground a Boeing plane.

  13. i will not fly on ANY boeing until muilenberg is fired and his bnuses ans stock clawd back. not just the max, because boeing is selling un-inspected airplanes from the SC plant, too. Just moved three reservations (all for two passengers, round trip) from 737 fliers to jetblue.

  14. We are suppose to fly on the 7M8 on Nov 10,2019 from lax to Miami. Is it flying and do I have any recourse. We booked thru Holland America Cruises.

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