DALLAS (AP) — Southwest Airlines customers relaxing Thursday evening got an email that may mean their summer vacation could be more stressful and expensive than they planned.
Southwest, the biggest operator of Boeing jets, is removing the grounded 737 Max from its schedule until at least Aug. 5, well past the peak of the summer high season.
Company president Tom Nealon wrote in his email the airline was taking the Max out of its schedule two months longer than previously planned to reduce the need for last-minute changes during the summer travel season. The decision, he wrote, would make the schedule more reliable.
Unless Boeing can quickly fix software on a flight-control system implicated in two deadly crashes, other airlines are likely to follow Southwest’s example and remove the Max from their schedules for an extended period.
That, in turn, ratchets up pressure on Boeing to fix its best-selling plane so it can return to flying soon.
Last month, Boeing and federal officials said privately the company would finish a software fix before the end of March. Instead, it was delayed by an unexpected problem that Boeing hasn’t fully described, and the company is now aiming to complete its work by late April.
CEO Dennis Muilenburg said Boeing pilots have flown 96 test flights totaling 160 hours with the new software and will operate more flights in the coming weeks to prove the fix works.
When Boeing does complete its work, it must be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval. Foreign regulators including in Europe and China will then do their own reviews — significant because foreign airlines account for about 85 percent of Max orders, according to analysts for financial services firm Cowen.
It remains uncertain how willing passengers will be to board the Max after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed all 346 people on board.
“The general flying public seems to be asking more questions about the airplane than they have with prior fleet groundings,” Goldman Sachs analyst Noah Poponak said, referring to the 2013 grounding of Boeing 787s because of overheating lithium-ion battery packs. The 787 survived and became a hit with airlines and passengers.
The longer the Max planes sit on the ground, the more money airlines lose. Southwest already figures that just the first three weeks the Max had been grounded, along with other setbacks, cut first-quarter revenue by $150 million.
Southwest has been canceling about 90 flights a day because its 34 Max jets have been grounded since mid-March. Spokesman Chris Mainz said the new schedule eliminates about 160 daily flights to assure customers it will operate the flights they booked.