On Wednesday, March 13, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an immediate order to ground Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 planes in the wake of new information about the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610 on March 10, 2019 and October 29, 2018, respectively. The decision followed in the footsteps of over 30 countries and multiple airlines that had already grounded those planes.

At my company, Ovation Travel Group, we've been getting questions about the Boeing 737, the latest information on the investigations into the two crashes, and how travelers could potentially be affected. Here is what you need to know:

Why did the U.S. wait to ground the planes? Dozens of countries noted the decision was a "precautionary measure," while the U.S. (and Canada) said that they waited to base their decisions on data. FAA acting administrator Daniel Elwell stated, "Since this accident occurred, we were resolute in our decision that we would not take action until we had data to support taking action. That data coalesced today and we made the call."

What was that data? In part, investigators at the crash site found preliminary evidence that suggested similarities to the Lion Air crash, namely a problem with the "newly installed automated system on the 737 Max jet intended to prevent a stall." This system, the Maneuver Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, automatically corrects a stall by pushing the aircraft's nose downward, which is the standard means of recovery.

What is the latest in those investigations? This Sunday, Ethiopia's transport minister, Dagmawit Moges, announced that data collected from Ethiopian Flight 302's flight recorder showed "clear similarities" to Lion Air Flight 610. While Moges did not elaborate on those similarities, she did note a preliminary report of the investigation will be released within 30 days. Related, Indonesia's transport safety committee had originally planned to release its report on the Lion Air Flight 610 crash in August or September, but now plans on releasing it in July or August.

How can the problem be fixed? On March 11, Boeing stated that, in the wake of the Lion Air crash, Boeing has been working on a software upgrade to the automated system that "includes updates to the [...] flight control law, pilot displays, operation manuals, and crew training. The enhanced flight control law incorporates angle of attack (AOA) inputs, limits stabilizer trim commands in response to an erroneous angle of attack reading, and provides a limit to the stabilizer command in order to retain elevator authority." While the original timeline for this upgrade was April, on March 17, Boeing announced they were "finalizing" those updates.

Is there a larger issue regarding safety assessments for planes? Some experts are saying "yes." In part due to a lack of funding, the FAA has given airplane manufacturers more authority in conducting their own safety tests and approving new aircraft design. On Sunday, The Seattle Times reported that FAA "managers pushed its engineers to delegate wide responsibility for assessing the safety of the 737 MAX to Boeing itself. But safety engineers familiar with the documents shared details that show the analysis included crucial flaws."

How long will this grounding last? No one knows how long this grounding will last. Investigations are still under way and the software upgrade is not yet ready for installation. It's important to remember that, even after the new software upgrade is released, it will take time to implement those upgrades, conduct necessary testing and training, etc.

How many U.S. airlines and flights are affected? Roughly 370 aircraft worldwide, including over 70 aircraft within three airlines in the U.S., are affected, with U.S. details as follows: American Airlines with 24 aircraft used for 85 of its daily 6,700 flights, Southwest Airlines with 34 aircraft used for 4 percent of its daily flights, and United Airlines with 14 aircraft used for 40 of its 4,700 daily flights.

Is it possible for a flight to be impacted even if that flight was not scheduled on a Boeing 737 MAX 8 or 9? While unlikely, it is possible for a flight on any of the airlines that had to ground planes to be impacted. This is due to the effort to reroute customers instead of just canceling flights. As American explained in a FAQ: "For example, a flight that was not scheduled as a MAX 8 flight might be canceled to enable our team to cover a MAX 8 route with a different aircraft. These decisions are being made in order to impact the smallest number of customers."

What steps should travelers take if they think their flight may be affected? The three U.S. airlines have issued the following statements; you can also contact your travel provider for assistance.

  • United: "Customers do not need to cancel and rebook as we will swap aircraft or automatically rebook you."
  • American: "Our team will work with all customers impacted by these flight cancellations in order to rebook them to their final destination. Affected customers can rebook by contacting our reservations team. If a flight is canceled, customers may request a full refund by visiting our website."
  • Southwest: "If any Customer experiences a cancelled flight as a result of the MAX 8 grounding, we are offering flexible rebooking arrangements without fees [....] In the event of a flight delay or cancellation, Customers are notified via the method selected when they booked their flight (phone, email, or text)."

What happens next? Right now, there are a lot of investigations under way. In addition to the above, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the U.S. Department of Transportation is investigating the FAA's approval of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. We'll need to wait and see how those investigations play out.