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The A and B groups had already boarded Jesse Damiani’s Southwest Airlines flight, to New Orleans from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, when President Trump announced that Boeing’s 737 Max plane was grounded.
“We were waiting for groups C and D to board when we got news,” he said in a phone interview.
The United States had been one of the few nations to allow the aircraft to fly after two planes of the same model were involved in deadly crashes in the past six months, including an Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday. Forty-two other nations had grounded the planes, as well as airlines around the world.
In a statement issued shortly after Mr. Trump’s announcement, the Federal Aviation Administration said that the decision was made using evidence found at the site of Sunday’s plane crash, as well as satellite data that was refined on Wednesday.
Domestically, travelers on specific routes offered by Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines will be affected by this change. Air Canada and WestJet also flies Max 8 planes but had grounded them earlier on Wednesday.
For passengers like Mr. Damiani, 29, the change of face by U.S. authorities meant they needed to change plans. He tried rescheduling his flight online, but was redirected to call the customer service line. When he called the line, he was told there was a 28-minute callback time, so he tried to get help at his gate.
“Every desk was solidly 50 people deep,” he said. “This was already a busy day with SXSW.”
He is now flying to New Orleans on a 7:15 p.m. flight with a layover in Orlando.
Here’s what passengers need to know about the grounding.
Why is this happening?
The Ethiopian Airlines plane crash that killed 157 people on Sunday rattled travelers, lawmakers and aviation officials around the world. Just six months ago, the same model of airplane — a Boeing 737 Max 8, operated by Lion Air — crashed off Indonesia and killed all 189 people onboard.
While the cause of Sunday’s tragedy remains undetermined, and the investigation into the Lion Air accident is ongoing, several circumstances surrounding these two crashes are similar.
The 200-seat Boeing 737 Max 8 has been a popular plane since it came on the market in 2017, with more than 4,000 planes ordered within the first six months. The plane sold quickly, based on features that passengers crave — a quieter cabin, more legroom — and bottom-line benefits to airlines, including fuel efficiency. At the time of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, nearly 350 Boeing 737 Max 8s were in operation around the world, including on routes across the United States: Miami to Los Angeles, Houston to Denver, San Francisco to Portland.
Which North American-based airlines currently fly Boeing 737 Max 8 planes?
With 34 planes in operation, Southwest Airlines has the largest number of Boeing 737 Max 8s in the world. Air Canada and American Airlines each have 24. United Airlines does not operate any Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, but it does fly the 737 Max 9 and had 14 of the planes. WestJet, another Canadian carrier, flies 13 Max planes, about eight percent of its 162-plane fleet.
Because of Wednesday’s ban, all of the 737 Max planes will be grounded.
Shouldn’t there be chaos?
For some airlines, the number of routes affected is minimal. On average, American operates 85 flights per day on the Max 8, out of 6,700 departures throughout its system. Southwest Airlines flies 34 Max 8s out of more than 750 total planes, which are used on 4 percent of its flights. A spokesman for Southwest said that the airline had canceled 5 Max flights out of 4,100 flights today as most passengers were moved to other aircraft. “We routinely have available aircraft in our fleet,” he said.
In a statement issued on Twitter, United Airlines said that its fleet of 14 Maxs account for roughly 40 flights a day, adding that “through a combination of spare aircraft and rebooking customers, we do not anticipate a significant operational impact.”
Air Canada in contrast, told its passengers to brace for possible difficulties. “Given the magnitude of our 737 Max operations which on average carry nine to twelve thousand customers per day, customers can expect delays in rebooking and in reaching Air Canada call centres and we appreciate our customers’ patience,” the company said in a statement.
It advised customers to check their flights on the airline website before going to the airport.
What are the airlines saying?
United told affected customers not to cancel their flights. “Customers do not need to cancel and rebook as we will swap aircraft or automatically rebook you,” the statement said. “If you require further assistance, please direct message us here.”
American Airlines also put out a statement, saying, “Our teams will make every effort to rebook customers as quickly as possible, and we apologize for any inconvenience.” On social media, the airline was telling passengers that it was working to reschedule everyone who had been booked on its 24 planes. It was also advising people to go to its normal refund page.
Southwest issued a statement that said: “Our goal is to operate our schedule with every available aircraft in our fleet to meet our customers' expectations during the busy spring travel season. Additionally, to support our customers, Southwest is offering flexible rebooking policies.”
While Southwest does not charge a change fee, it does usually require passengers to make up any difference in fares, but it is waiving that requirement for passengers on canceled Max flights who rebook within 14 days of their original date of travel on the same route.
John L. Dorman and John Surico contributed reporting.
Tariro Mzezewa is a travel reporter at The New York Times. @tariro
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