Southwest confident it will assuage fears about Boeing 737 Max jets

Southwest expects to encounter wary customers when
the airline is eventually able to put grounded Boeing 737 Max aircraft back
in the air. 

“There are certainly going to be some people who will
probably book away for a time,” Southwest president Tom Nealon said during
the airline’s Q1 earnings call Thursday. 

Nealon added that the carrier has been engaging with
customers about the issue and has also been using contractors to research the
matter. 

“I think we’ve got a really good handle on what our
customers are thinking and feeling and what it is we should be doing,” he
said. 

All but one of Southwest’s 34 Max planes are
parked in Victorville, Calif. (the other is parked in Orlando), where they are awaiting clearance from the FAA to
re-enter service. Max aircraft
worldwide have been grounded since March 13 due to a pair of crashes that
investigations indicated were caused by erroneous information transmitted from
an aircraft sensor to the automated flight control system. A total of 346
people died in last October’s Lion Air crash and the Ethiopian Airlines crash
in March. 

Southwest has pulled the Max from its
flight schedule through Aug. 5. Once the FAA lifts the grounding, it will take
approximately a month to get all of them updated and back in service, COO Mike Van de Ven said during Thursday’s call. If any Max
aircraft are able to return to the skies prior to Aug. 6, Southwest will use
them as spares, he added.

Nealon emphasized that although he expects some flyers to steer
clear of the Max, it doesn’t mean those Southwest aircraft will be operating
with extra empty seats. 

“I can tell you we will have a very comprehensive plan
that communicates with our customers and our employees every step of the way,”
he said. 

The Max grounding, coupled with a dispute between Southwest
and its mechanics, were major factors in the carrier cancelling more than
10,000 flights during the first quarter, the most the carrier has canceled in
any quarter since the 9/11 attacks grounded the fleet in the third quarter of
2001, Van de Ven said. 

Those cancellations, combined with the government shutdown,
harsh winter weather and soft leisure revenue factored into Southwest recording
net income of $387 million for the quarter, a 16% drop. 

Nevertheless, Southwest’s operating revenue jumped 4.1% to
$5.1 billion, beating analyst expectations by $10 million, according to the
website Seeking Alpha. The airline’s earnings per share beat expectations by 8
cents.

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