Boeing grounded: What it means for air travel

By Ana Nicolaci da Costa
Business reporter

A Southwest Boeing 737 Max 8 enroute from Tampa prepares to land at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on March 11, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.Image source, Getty Images

The grounding of Boeing's 737 Max fleet is expected to cause little air travel disruption - at least for now.

The plane-maker grounded its global fleet of the aircraft as a safety precaution after new evidence emerged about a fatal crash involving the jet.

The 737 Max is flown by airlines around the world for short trips.

Analysts say the initial impact of the grounded jets will be contained, but may escalate if the fleet is not permitted to fly for a longer period.

The 737 Max has been the fastest-selling aircraft in Boeing's history, with more than 4,500 ordered by 100 different operators globally.

But the model still only accounts for a small proportion of travel around the world.

Globally, airlines were scheduled to fly just under 700,000 commercial flights this week, data from flight consultancy OAG shows.

Of those, 6,548 were due to be operated by a Boeing 737 Max variant.

"We are talking about just 1% of global flights planned for the aircraft this week," said OAG's John Grant.

Which regions will be most affected by the grounded jets?

The Boeing 737 Max 8 - the model involved in the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday - is generally used for short-haul and domestic flights.

Analysts say North America will face the most disruption as Southwest Airlines, Air Canada and American Airlines are the three largest operators of the 737 Max aircraft in the world.

Ellis Taylor, Asia Finance Editor at Flight Global, said the grounding of the aircraft "will have some impact" on US schedules.

Still, even if the grounded jets prompts some flight cancellations, analysts expect airlines will be able to accommodate passengers by putting them on other flights, using alternative aircraft or putting old jets back into action.

"There is plenty of capacity available globally to accommodate this capacity loss for quite a long period of time," OAG's Mr Grant said.

Flight Global's Mr Taylor said the scheduled 737 Max flights in the US will mostly run using other jets, but there may be "some inconvenience over the next couple of days as the airlines implement their contingency plans".

What will happen next?

The level of disruption will depend on how long the 737 Max aircraft are forbidden to fly.

That will turn on how long the investigation into what caused the Ethiopian Airlines crash takes, and what the cause is determined to be.

It could take some time. A preliminary report on the October Lion Air disaster was released about a month after the crash.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has a team investigating the Ethiopian Airlines crash site, has drawn parallels between the two disasters.

Flight Global's Mr Taylor said it now looks more likely the grounding "will extend at least a few weeks, and potentially into a few months, but it all depends on what safety issues are identified".