Should Airlines Refund Future Boeing 737 MAX Bookings?

With the 737 MAX destined to return to our skies eventually, almost certainly by the end of the summer, Simple Flying consider how the paying public will react? For those who are, understandably, nervous to fly it, should carriers allow them to cancel their bookings and get a full refund? Or should they back Boeing and help the world to get over what happened?

Boeing 737 MAX 8 MCAS Update
Should carriers give refunds to passengers scheduled on the MAX? Image by Boeing.

Unless passengers are av geeks like us, most wouldn’t take much notice of the plane they are allocated to fly. The majority would be more concerned with bagging a bargain flight or travelling at a convenient time. However, since the two deadly crashes involving the 737 MAX, more people than ever are going to be checking their bookings to see what equipment has been allocated.

With the 737 MAX slowly edging through the process of being allowed back into the skies, Simple Flying are wondering how it will be received when it comes back into service? If people are unhappy about being allocated the MAX for their journey, should carriers allow them to change their booking at no cost?

Norwegian Air, for one, think not.

The Scandinavian carrier has had its fair share of financial problems, and was the first airline to demand Boeing pay compensation for the grounding of the MAX. With money as tight as it is for Norwegian, it’s no surprise that they’re not keen to further burden themselves with additional administration.

At the moment, the question is purely hypothetical as the MAX is still a way off being allowed to fly. However, it’s a pertinent one to address and something all MAX operators will need to be thinking about.

What happened in the past?

When the 737 MAX first started to be grounded, most of those carriers who were still operating the plane did not allow passengers to change their flights without penalty. Most affected by far were the US MAX operators, as North America were the last region to ground the aircraft.

At the time, American Airlines did not allow customers to make fee free changes, unless they had booking policies or status which allowed them to do so. They did, however, allow cabin crew to refuse to fly the plane. United had a similar policy, with their standard fees for making changes to bookings still applicable.

Southwest 737 MAX
Southwest were the only airline to allow fee-free changes. Photo: Southwest Airlines

There was an exception to this stance, however. Southwest Airlines, the biggest operator of the 737 MAX in the world, allowed passengers to make changes to their bookings fee free if it was related to a lack of confidence in the MAX. With a fleet of 34 aircraft, making up around 7% of their capacity, this was a bold move by Southwest and was undoubtedly appreciated by their passengers.

Of course, all this became irrelevant on March 13th as the Trump administration finally took action and the 737 MAX was banned worldwide.

What about when it comes back into service?

Things are certainly moving along at Boeing, as the plane maker strives to get the MAX re-certified to fly. Already the MCAS update is ready for certification, and the FAA has said the aircraft is ‘operationally suitable’. However, re-entry to service is likely to be some way off, with most carriers taking it out of schedule until at least July or August.

When it does come back into service, carriers will need to make a decision on how they plan to handle those passengers who are, understandably, nervous to get on board. Alex Macheras (The Points Guy) has a pretty clear opinion on the matter:

However, I personally beg to differ. If the FAA, Boeing and national aviation authorities all agree that it’s safe to fly, shouldn’t we have some faith in their decision? If operators are to allow passengers to opt out of flying the MAX, why not let them opt out of other models with checkered histories too?

Considering airliner safety

According to figures from AirSafe, there are a bunch of aircraft with poor safety records out there. Fatal events, classified as any event where at least one person (excluding crew) died as a result, are numerous across both the Airbus and Boeing range. To pick a few examples:

  • Boeing 747-100/200/300: 26 fatal events
  • Airbus A300 (all models): 10 fatal events
  • Airbus A318/A319/A320/A321: 14 fatal events
  • Boeing 737-600/700/800/900: 9 fatal events

In contrast, the 737 MAX family has experienced just two. Granted, they were mass fatalities and absolutely devastating, but in context of other airline incidents, there are other aircraft which could be considered ‘unsafe’ too.

Older versions of the 747 had a much worse safety record. Photo: Wikipedia

If carriers start allowing passengers to get picky about the aircraft they fly on, the whole thing could become a logistical nightmare. How are airlines supposed to manage if passengers are allowed to chop and change flights at a moment’s notice?

Passengers who are concerned about which aircraft they are allocated should take care when booking their flights. Either that, or they should book the type of ticket that allows them to cancel or change their plans further down the line.

At some point we’ve all got to get over what happened and have some faith that Boeing and the FAA are doing the best they can to keep us all safe going forward. Of course, this is just my opinion (and probably a contentious one at that).

Agree? Don’t agree? Let me know in the comments!