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Booked a flight for future travel? Here’s how you can tell if you were on a Boeing 737 Max 8 — and what you can do about it

Booked a flight for future travel? Here’s how you can tell if you were on a Boeing 737 Max 8 — and what you can do about it
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Airline customers can expect months of travel disruptions stemming from the Canadian and U.S. governments’ decision to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8, according to industry experts.

Mary Jane Hiebert, chair of the board of directors for the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, said Wednesday that member organizations started getting calls from concerned travellers immediately after one of the jets operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed on Sunday , even before aviation authorities around the world started suspending flights using the aircraft. The calls haven’t let up since.

March Break is a tricky time to be rebooking fights. “The planes are full.”  (Cole Burston / GETTY IMAGES)

“I think it’s a bit of a domino effect and we’re not really sure how bad it could be,” Hiebert said.

The Canadian and U.S. authorities’ move to ban the Boeing model from their airspaces Wednesday sent airlines scrambling to make arrangements for passengers, with Hiebert predicting the fallout could last well beyond this week.

She said it might not be simple for airlines to replace their Max 8s with other aircraft, as not all crews are trained to fly all plane models. And as airlines can book flights as much as a year in advance, any routes scheduled to be served by the Max 8s could see changes.

“If the aircraft is grounded indefinitely then, yes, it will have a big effect,” Hiebert said.

“The first two months are going to be the most critical. After that it might get a little bit easier as far as rescheduling.”

How can you tell if you were booked on a 737 Max?

Just three Canadian airlines were operating 737 Max 8’s before this week — Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing.

Allison Wallace, director of media and communications for Flight Centre Canada, said a customer’s booking information should state the type of aircraft being used for the flight, either by its full name or a three-digit code. The code for the 737 Max 8 is 7M8.

Customers should check the codes carefully because other models of the Boeing 737 family aren’t affected by the grounding. These models will have different codes.

Wallace said if customers don’t see the type of aircraft listed on their booking, they should contact their airline or travel agent.

Third-party websites like FlightRadar24 also list aircraft types for commercial flights.

How many people are affected?

According to WestJet, as of Wednesday about 1,000 of its customers had been inconvenienced by the 737 Max 8 grounding. The Calgary-based airline normally operates 13 of the aircraft, out of a total fleet of 175.

The company said it had already “moved more than half” of affected customers “to same-day flight options” and hoped to rebook the rest on flights Thursday and Friday.

Air Canada said its fleet of 24 of 737 Max 8’s usually operate 75 flights daily. That’s a fraction of the 1,600 flights the airline schedules every day, but the planes still normally carry between 9,000 and 12,000 customers per day. The company said it was working to rebook those passengers “as soon as possible.”

Sunwing announced late Tuesday, the evening before the Canadian government announced it was grounding the planes, that it had independently decided to take its four 737 Max 8’s out of service. The company said the planes made up just 10 per cent of its fleet and “we will not be cancelling any flights” as a result of any schedule changes.

Could some travellers be more affected than others?

Wallace said customers flying within Canada are likely to have an easier time coping with the disruptions.

“If you’re going somewhere domestically where there’s multiple flights a day, you’re probably not going to be delayed too badly,” she said.

But for passengers headed to “sun destinations” in places like the Caribbean where there are fewer daily flights, “it’s a bit more challenging.

“But the airlines are doing what they can to reshuffle their aircraft and put larger aircraft in the more popular destinations,” she said.

Are airlines waiving fees for flight changes or cancellations?

Air Canada issued a statement Wednesday that it had instituted a rebooking policy that allowed passengers to change flights without paying additional fees, “space permitting.” A spokesperson said fees would also be waived for people wishing to cancel flights that had been booked on a 737 Max 8.

WestJet posted a message to its website saying the company had invoked its “uncontrollable delay” policy, meaning it will attempt to rebook passengers on the next available flight at no additional cost. The company will also change customers’ return flights to match the length of their original booked trip, or book them on a flight headed to a location close to their original destination.

According to the company’s uncontrollable delay policy, any changes outside of those options could result in customers paying additional fees or higher fares.

How has the peak March Break travel period affected this scenario?

According to Wallace, air traffic during March Break can be as much as double or triple that of normal times.

“You’re looking at very limited space available at these times. The planes are full,” she said.

The lack of free seats is likely why Air Canada has opted to waive fees for cancellations, according to Hiebert. If passengers cancel upcoming flights, that means there’s more room to accommodate other customers.

“When this kind of thing happens it’s easier on the airlines if there are cancellations on the passenger’s side,” she said.
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