Grounding of Boeing 737 Maxes impacts Valley International

HARLINGEN — The Boeing 737 Max has made only rare appearances at Valley International Airport, but their grounding for airlines heavily invested in the jet is still making an impact here.

Southwest, the biggest operator of the 737 Max with 34 planes, has grounded its jets until Feb. 8. American Airline’s 24 Maxes remained out of service and United Airlines’ 14 planes also remain idle.

A year ago, a 737 Max flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air crashed, killing 189 people. Investigators are focusing on the plane’s anti-stall software. A second crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max killed all 157 people on board.

The new Boeing 737 Maxes have flown into Valley International Airport as replacement aircraft. Quite simply, the 189-passenger jets carry too many people to make a regular flight economically feasible to or from VIA.

But to make up shortfalls at hub airports, Southwest, American and United are scrambling to fill flights by pulling other, non-Max aircraft out of regular service to cover gaps in their flight schedules. This will affect not just VIA, but other airports as well.

“I’m reading the media just like anybody else is and hope we get this thing resolved as quickly as possible,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at VIA, said in a recent interview. “As far as Southwest, I know it’s going to hurt our traffic through the holiday season and I’m not really happy about that, but understand it, and we’re going to stick by Southwest and all our carriers as they get through these issues.”

The traffic at VIA, measured in enplanements or people boarding aircraft, is up significantly. For the fiscal year which ended Sept. 30, Valley International saw a 12.6 percent increase in enplanements, in large part due to the addition of American Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

Yet across the nation, Southwest, which flew 57 percent of the passengers at VIA last year, is cutting back flights in certain markets to fill gaps in air schedules.

“Their whole fleet is 737s,” Esterly said, “and they have big plans. They’re moving to Hawaii and they were going to utilize the Maxes, the new Maxes coming on. Most of their new aircraft coming on in the fleet were Maxes.

“So they had to pool, they had to look everywhere and pull planes just to keep up with their expansion plans,” he added. “Unfortunately, airports throughout the nation have seen flight reductions, capacity reductions in flights, even though they didn’t have Maxes in there.”

The problems for Boeing and its beleaguered 737 Max continue to mount.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was grilled last week by members of Congress in Washington about the two Max crashes and problems with anti-stall software which is believed to have contributed to them.

Critics of Boeing’s creation of the 737 Max say that in attempts to build an aircraft which used less fuel and was more environmentally friendly, they took the same 737 frame and attached larger, more fuel-efficient engines.

But since those twin engines were larger, they had to be moved farther up the wing in order to ensure minimum ground clearance, which some engineers believe shifted the center of gravity of the plane and created potentially dangerous flight problems.

Muilenburg told lawmakers that Boeing made “mistakes” and “have learned from both accidents and identified changes that need to be made.”

On Friday, Reuters news service reported the union representing American Airlines flight attendants said its members feared for their safety and will not fly on Boeing 737 Maxes if they return to the air in 2020.

“The 28,000 flight attendants working for American Airlines refuse to walk onto a plane that may not be safe and are calling for the highest possible safety standards to avoid another tragedy,” Lori Bassani, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said in a letter obtained by Reuters.