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United passengers booked aboard a 737 MAX jet may switch with no penalty

The airline is preparing for the possibility that people will be wary of the currently grounded jet

Photo (c) chameleonseye - Getty Images
The Boeing 737 MAX, grounded since March, may be back in the air by the end of the year. When it is, United Airlines says you don’t have to fly it if you don’t want to.

Andrew Nocella, chief commercial officer at United, told an investor conference this week that passengers booked aboard flights scheduled to fly the grounded aircraft can change flights without paying a fee.

The 737 MAX was grounded in March after the second fatal crash in five months, believed to be for the same or similar reasons. At the time it was believed the grounding would be for a short time while a software change was made. However, it has extended month after month, forcing the airlines to cancel flights scheduled to use the jet.

"We need to get through the recertification process, return the aircraft to service and see how things go," Nocera said at the conference. "If somebody is uncomfortable getting on the aircraft, we want to make sure we can put them on a different aircraft."

United has little exposure

Of all the domestic airlines, United has the least exposure to the 737 MAX. It was operating only 14 of the jets at the time of the grounding. American and Southwest fly more. Still, the airline is addressing an issue that may prove to be a problem for the aircraft and the airlines that fly it.

Once the world’s aviation authorities declare that the 737 MAX is safe to fly, will passengers still prefer to fly on another aircraft type? And if so, what will it take to calm fears?

The 737 MAX is a variation of the venerable Boeing 737, used by airlines around the world for short hops. Southwest Airline flies the Boeing 737 exclusively and added the 737 MAX 8 to its fleet to accommodate more passengers.

The aircraft type flew for the first time in early 2016 and achieved certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) a year later. In October 2018 a Ryan Air 737 MAX 8 crashed on takeoff in Indonesia. In March of this year, an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 also crashed on takeoff under similar circumstances.


While investigations into the two crashes were completely independent, the similarities of their findings have strongly suggested a common cause. An angle-of-attack sensor, located on the plane’s fuselage, sends a signal to the flight control system if it determines the plane is climbing at too steep an angle, which could lead to a stall.

In both instances, investigators believe the sensor may have transmitted faulty information to the flight control system during takeoff, triggering an automated response that pointed the nose of the plane down when it should have been climbing.

The big question at this point is just exactly when the 737 MAX aircraft will return to service. Boeing officials have said they are hopeful the plan can return to the skies as early as next month.

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