Airlines shift planes to get March Break travellers home amid Max 8 grounding

Airlines shift planes to get March Break travellers home amid Max 8 grounding

TORONTO — Two Canadian airlines dealing with the grounding of Boeing Max 8 jets say they have re-assigned other planes to accommodate travellers returning home from March Break vacations.

Both Air Canada and WestJet said Sunday they shifted planes to focus on routes taking travellers to and from vacation destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean. 

But the airlines also acknowledged that despite those efforts, the loss of the Boeing jets caused the cancellation of a number of domestic flights over the weekend, as well as delays on customer support lines.

"Recognizing that it is March Break, our priority was to cover our north-south flying and so we have been able to accommodate the vast majority of customers travelling south or returning from the holiday," Air Canada said in a statement.

The company did not say how many of its domestic flights had been cancelled but acknowledged "capacity challenges" on those routes.

Air Canada said it was working to add capacity in these markets "within the constraints imposed by the 737 fleet grounding."

WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said that since the Max 8s were grounded this week the company has been working to off-set the impact.

"Of the more than 65,000 guests booked on MAX flights up to March 31, more than 85 per cent will have had little to no changes to their flight schedule," Stewart said in a statement.

On its website, the company said it had been working hard to limit cancellations for people returning from southern destinations.

WestJet said Sunday the changes it made resulted in the cancellation of 14 flights affecting approximately 1,600 passengers, with the majority re-booked on flights Sunday or Monday.

Of those cancelled flights, all were domestic except for a single trip from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"Our teams have been working incredibly hard behind the scenes to limit cancellations to our sunny destinations during spring break and as a result, there have been no sun market cancellations, ensuring that families will be on their way to the beaches and sunshine," WestJet said. 

Last Wednesday, Transport Minister Marc Garneau grounded the Max 8s as a precautionary move, three days after the Ethiopian Airlines disaster that killed all 157 people on board, including 18 Canadians.

Air Canada has 24 Max 8s and WestJet has 13 — six per cent and seven per cent of their fleets of 400 and 175 aircraft, respectively.

Air Canada has estimated that its Max 8 jets carried between 9,000 and 12,000 passengers a day. WestJet said the grounding order will affect about 1,400 customers daily.

Aviation industry expert and McGill University associate professor Karl Moore said the companies were planning for the return of March Break travellers this week.

But regardless of how much juggling both Air Canada and WestJet did, there were bound to be cancelled or delayed flights because each company has lost thousands of seats, he said.

"They're moving capacity around but there are limits to what they can do," he said. "It's going to cost them money because there are going to be a bunch of people who miss flights and they'll have to pay those costs."

Moore said after the next few days pass, the industry will move into a period in April and May when travel numbers drop. That will give companies more time to cope with the loss of the planes and figure out a strategy to address it, he added.

The lull should also give Boeing an opportunity to address any issues with the jets, train pilots and begin to repair public trust in their planes which has been damaged after the crash, Moore said.

"Job number one in that industry is safety because if people feel it's unsafe they're not going to travel," he said.

"Boeing has got to say ... 'We're not going to have the Max 8 in the air unless we're fully confident they're safe to travel.' It's going to take time for Boeing to win people back."

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press