US airlines are allowing passengers to avoid the Boeing 737 Max as it returns to the skies in the coming months – here's how

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  • Airlines are responding to customer skepticism over the Boeing 737 Max by offering free flight changes and trip cancellations to those seeking to avoid it.
  • The four US airlines that plan to operate the Max in 2021 have all said they’ll work with passengers, despite praising the aircraft’s efficiency and safety. 
  • At least for the time being, there’s very little reason that anybody who doesn’t want to fly on a Boeing 737 Max should be flying on a Boeing 737 Max.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The Boeing 737 Max is returning to US skies in earnest come 2021 and while airlines are touting its efficiency and newfound safety following a 20-month grounding, they’re also giving passengers booked on the plane a way out. 

Each airline operating the newly-ungrounded aircraft has vowed to offer flexibility to skeptical customers as the jet gets reacclimated to flying passengers.  

It’s a hire-wire balancing act airlines are walking as they’re espousing their confidence in the jet while also allowing passengers to avoid it. But then again, the pandemic has forced airlines to bow to passengers in order to get more customers on their planes, regardless of what plane it is. 

Read more: 5 charts reveal how badly the loss of business travel is hurting America’s biggest airlines – and why a COVID-19 vaccine won’t ease the pain

The four airlines that currently or plan to fly the Max in 2021 have all eliminated change fees for most tickets, giving consumers greater flexibility than ever before to shape their travel plans exactly how they want. Combined with new Max-specific policies, there’s largely no reason for anybody to fly on the jet if they don’t want to. 

It’s unclear how long these policies will last since flying on the Boeing 737 Max will become harder to avoid in 2021 as more orders are delivered to US airlines. American Airlines is quickly regrowing the aircraft’s route network starting in January and more airlines like United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Alaska Airlines are preparing to resume flying it as early as February. 

Here’s how each airline is helping passengers ditch the jet. 

American Airlines

American Airlines is arguably the US airline most eager to get the Boeing 737 Max back in the skies with passengers with the earliest resumption date of any airline in the country and plans to fly the Max across the US and Caribbean come January. 

But passengers who don’t want to journey on the aircraft have options open to them to avoid it. American’s policy is to allow passengers to change to the next available flight that’s not operated by a Max or cancel their trip and receive a travel credit instead. 

Passengers can also change their origin and/or destination within 300 miles of their existing itinerary if there is no non-Max itinerary available for their current routing. 

Simultaneously, the airline has been getting an early jump on restoring confidence in the jet by flying employees and members of the media on demonstration flights. Business Insider’s David Slotnick joined the first demonstration flight from Dallas to Tulsa, Oklahoma, home to an American Airlines maintenance facility, where technicians outlined the changes being made following the grounding. 

Video: All the U.S. Airlines Offering COVID-19 Testing (Travel + Leisure)

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UP NEXT

United Airlines

United currently plans to restart Boeing 737 Max flights on February 11, 2021, according to Cirium data, with the Max 9 variant from Los Angeles and Houston to cities across the US including Orlando, Florida; Tampa, Florida; and San Diego, California.

If a passenger doesn’t want to fly on the Max, United’s policy allows for a complimentary rebooking or the issuance of a refund. This policy is independent of United’s recent elimination of change fees for certain domestic and international tickets and covers all types of tickets, including basic economy fares and international flights. 

Travelers who booked flights on other airlines through United are also included in the policy. If a passenger is booked on another airline’s Boeing 737 Max, United will rebook them too. 

Southwest Airlines

There’s no set resumption date for Southwest’s Boeing 737 Max operation, though that’s not for a lack of enthusiasm around the aircraft. Bloomberg reported that Southwest is reportedly in talks to acquire up to 30 “white-tail” aircraft, the term for planes that were built but lost their original customer, to speed up deliveries of its order for nearly 300 aircraft.

CEO Gary Kelly told customers in a letter that the jet wouldn’t be flying in the first quarter of 2021 and the airline’s Boeing 737 Max FAQ states that customers who are booked on the aircraft can request a free change.  

“Southwest’s goal is to provide transparency and flexibility to Customers when the 737 MAX 8 returns to service,” the airline’s Boeing 737 Max return to service plan states. “The temporary policy flexibilities will include allowing Customers booked on a 737 MAX 8 to request a change to a flight on one of our 737-700 or 737-800 aircraft as they approach their departure date, subject to seat availability.”

Southwest doesn’t charge change fees for any of its flights but a fare difference is required when making any change. The Max-specific policy will not incur any fare difference as long as the origin and destination remain the same. 

Customers can cancel their tickets and receive a travel credit if a non-refundable ticket was booked. Those with a refundable ticket will receive a refund. 

But the policy also states that a customer still might find themselves on a Boeing 737 Max in the event of an aircraft swap by the airline. Southwest, after all, maintains an all-Boeing 737 fleet so aircraft swaps are possible, even at the last minute. 

Alaska Airlines

Alaska’s first Boeing 737 Max route scheduled for 2021 is Los Angeles-Portland with the inaugural flight tentatively scheduled for March 1, 2021, according to Cirium data, though the airline says it will also initially serve Seattle-Los Angeles, Portland-Las Vegas, and Seattle-San Diego.

The Seattle-based carrier didn’t have the opportunity to fly the Max before the jet’s March 2019 grounding but plans to fly the Max 9 variant, based on the 737-900 Next-Generation currently in Alaska’s fleet.

A section of Alaska’s website details the way forward for the Max, including over 50 hours of flight testing before a paying passenger is flown, though it doesn’t offer guidance to passengers who find themselves on the jet.  

An airline spokesperson, however, told Business Insider: “For guests who are not comfortable flying on a MAX, we’ll work with them. If they request it, we can move them to a different flight on another aircraft.”

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