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Why the 737 Max grounding messes with airline schedules more than you think

Key Points
  • Extended delays in getting Max in the air are difficult for airlines, since they work up to a year ahead of time coordinating schedules.
  • For American Airlines, that means coordinating 6,800 daily flights with more than 1,500 planes to more than 365 destinations in 61 countries.
Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, July 1, 2019.
Lindsey Wasson | Reuters

FORT WORTH, Texas — If you think you've got travel headaches, try spending a day, or several days in the shoes of Vasu Raja, the man in charge of schedule planning for American Airlines.

For six months Raja and his team have been canceling, then rescheduling, then canceling again when American plans to once again fly 737 Max jets.

"This is probably one of the more hard, if not the hardest, scheduling problems that the airline could have," Raja said as he walked through American's network operations center in Fort Worth, Texas.

The extended delays in getting the Max off the ground are especially difficult for airlines like American since they work up to a year ahead of time coordinating schedules of flight crews, maintenance teams, airport operations, ticketing managers and others.

For Vasu and his team, that means coordinating 6,800 daily flights with more than 1,500 planes to more than 365 destinations in 61 countries. And remember, for each of those flights, American must make sure there is adequate staffing, including pilots certified to fly the appropriate model plane.

While airlines work on flight schedules up to a year in advance, they typically lock them in three to four months ahead of time.

"Most of our customers, certainly in our domestic system, start booking their travel at about 90 to 100 days from the time they actually plan to fly," he said. That would fall around the middle of November, more than a week after the date American plans to put the 737 Max back on its schedule.

The airline picked Nov. 3 as its estimated date to return to service based on conversations with Boeing. The plane maker is expecting to apply for recertification and get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulators early in the fourth quarter. Since Boeing cannot guarantee that will happen, Vasu and his team may be forced to amend their schedule on a far tighter timeline.

"In terms of how quickly we can go and operate something?" Vasu asks rhetorically. "Typically in about the 40- to 50-day window is what we would need."

Once the Max is deemed safe to fly, airlines will need some time getting it back in the air. Especially since pilots who fly the plane may need go through additional training.

It's costing airlines a lot more than time.

"It is not a good situation, we are not happy about it," Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC in late July after the company reported earnings. "You saw here in the second quarter it cost us $175 million and that will be more in the third quarter." Southwest has pulled the Max from its schedule through Jan. 5.

United Airlines still has the Max returning to its schedule on Nov. 4. Late last month, CEO Oscar Munoz wouldn't say when United might change that date if the Max software fix and recertification are further delayed. "We'll let the process play out. When it's ready, we'll be ready to pivot and get it back to the marketplace."

The longer the Max is grounded, the greater the complexity of figuring out when it should be slotted in the schedule. When the plane was taken out of service, American had 24 Maxes in its fleet and was scheduled to take delivery of 16 more this year. Those additional Max planes won't likely join American's fleet until well into 2020. so American's scheduling department will have to adjust its future schedule.

"If we're not taking deliveries of those airplanes, that's five or 10 or 15 more lines of flying more airplanes that we need to go cover for on the schedule," Raja said. To cover some of the flights that were originally scheduled to be flown by the Max, American is postponing the retirement of several planes in its existing fleet.

— CNBC's Meghan Reeder contributed to this report