An American Airlines executive reveals why its exposure to the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max has been limited

Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesGrounded American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 airliners.
  • The Boeing 737 Max has been grounded since March 13.
  • As a result, American Airlines had to withdraw 24 jetliners from service with little notice.
  • American pulled the Boeing jet from its flight schedules until August 19, resulting in the cancelation of 115 flights a day.
  • Unlike other airlines, American bases its 737 Max fleet in a single hub, Miami. The airline says this strategy has been a fortuitous development and limited the fallout from the grounding.
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The grounding of the Boeing 737 Max in March sent carriers scrambling to figure how to operate their scheduled flights with an entire fleet of aircraft suddenly unavailable.

The disruption caused by the grounding can be felt across the US aviation system.

For American Airlines, it means cancelling 115 flights every day until August 19. While it may pale in comparison to the 6,500 flights a day the airline operates, it’s still 115 planeloads of passengers who must be accommodated each day.

Suddenly losing two dozen aircraft from your fleet and having to scour your network to move planes around to fill in gaps is never a good thing, Vasu Raja, American Airlines’ vice president of planning, told Business Insider.

However, the unique way American structured its 737 Max fleet has mitigated the harm done to the airline’s flight operations by the grounding, he said.

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That’s because the airline’s 737 Max fleet is based in a single hub, Miami.

“It was good because at the end of the day it really simplified the scheduling problem we had,” Raja said. “We knew we needed to cover certain things in Miami, and it put real bounds around what we were solving for.”

Raja added that “if the aeroplane was flying all across the US, that could have created more challenges for us given how fast we had to go and makes changes to” the schedule.

According to Raja, who is in charge of developing American’s global network strategy, the decision to base the 737 Max in Miami has as much to do with the way Miami International Airport is designed as it does with the plane itself.

“In our system, especially in Florida, there are a ton of markets that really play to having a high-volume aeroplane that also has the ability to fly far,” he said.

The 737 Max’s ability to carry 172 passengers allows the airline to balance frequency and passenger capacity on flights from Miami to destinations such as New York and San Francisco where the number of flights allowed is limited, Raja said.

The American Airlines exec also said the 737 Max delivered the range and performance required for many of the flights from Miami to Latin America.

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And then there are Miami Airport’s unique challenges.

“Our Miami facility is a 1-mile-long facility where we connect passengers and crew,” Raja said. “One of the things we discovered over the years is that the fewer the fleet types that feed it, the more reliable the operation in Miami is.”

American Airlines Miami terminalDaniel Korzeniewski / Shutterstock.comThe American Airlines terminal at Miami International Airport.

Since different aircraft types require their own operating certifications, not all crew members can operate them all. So the more aircraft types you have operating into the airport, the more types of crew members you must have on hand.

Raja said that before American cut down on the types of planes flying to Miami, there would be times a specific crew needed for a flight at Gate D2 would be coming off another flight that landed at D60, on the other side of the terminal, and the flight at D2 would take a delay because the crew couldn’t get across the airport in time.

By limiting Miami to mostly Boeing 737s and Airbus A319s, crew and aircraft scheduling has become simpler, Raja said.

“Since we’ve simplified Miami, we’ve seen a huge improvement in its operating performance,” Raja said, adding that at the start of the American-US Airways merger in 2013 “it was one of our worst-performing hubs, and now it’s consistently one of our best-performing hubs.”

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As for the Boeing 737 Max’s return to service, Raja said he’s positive that it will happen but is not certain when.

“We feel great confidence that this aeroplane will be recertified, and it will be recertified in the course of the summer, and it will fly again soon,” he said. “But for us, we’re not certain what that date is.”

Raja said the 737 Max was pulled from the airline’s schedule until August to assure customers that they can make their reservations without worrying that their flights will be canceled because of the grounding.

“As customers go and make their summer travel plans, we need to be able to give them a schedule they have absolute confidence will be delivered, so we had to take out the Max,” Raja said. “We have to do it far enough in advance that no one fears they will have to be accommodated on a flight that doesn’t suit them.”

Boeing 737 Max 8Boeing

On March 13, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order to ground the Boeing 737 Max fleet in the US. American, Southwest, and United Airlines had to immediately pull the 72 jetliners from their respective operational fleets.

Southwest is the world’s largest operator of the Boeing jet, with 34 in its fleet. American is tied with China Southern and Air Canada for the second most 737 Maxes, at 24 aircraft. United operates a fleet of 14 of the airliners.

The grounding followed the fatal crashes of Lion Air Flight JT610 in October and Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 in March. The FAA is awaiting Boeing’s proposed fix for the 737 Max’s troubled flight-control system.

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