Lingering questions about the 737 Max cost Tampa its flights to Iceland

Icelandair ticket counters at Tampa International Airport were unstaffed Monday as the airport confirmed that the airline is pulling out of the Tampa Bay area market. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
Icelandair ticket counters at Tampa International Airport were unstaffed Monday as the airport confirmed that the airline is pulling out of the Tampa Bay area market. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
Published June 18, 2019

TAMPA — Losing nonstop flights from Tampa International Airport to Iceland was almost certainly a bigger blow to the Tampa Bay area's ego than to the bottom line of its showpiece airport, but it was something else, too.

It was the latest example of the way that lingering questions about the airworthiness of the Boeing 737 Max are nibbling at the predictability, schedules and range of consumer choices that drive the air travel industry, to say nothing of the damage they continue to do to the reputation of Boeing itself.

Icelandair said this week it cut service to Tampa because of the groundings of the 737 Max, which comprised 14 percent of its fleet, following two crashes in five months that killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia. In recent months, it likewise pulled its fleet from Cleveland and Halifax, Nova Scotia, too.

'TRICKLE DOWN': 737 Max groundings hit Icelandair's service to Tampa

Icelandair is not alone. American Airlines expects to cancel about 115 flights a day through Sept. 3. United Airlines grounded 14 of the jets that flew about 40 flights a day, but has said that using spare aircraft and rebooking customers should help it avoid a significant impact to its operations.

"It depends on how many of those aircraft they have in their fleet," Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor of operations management Ahmed Abdelghany told the Tampa Bay Times. Uncertainty — when can we use this aircraft? when can we schedule new routes? what reservations can we support? what can we order? — adds dimensions to the problem.

Tampa International is on pace to see a record 22.2 million passengers this year, but officials expect to see service reductions while 737 Max jets stay grounded. Those expectations, airport spokeswoman Janet Scherberger said, are based on conversations with the airlines about their response to the groundings and published schedules, which are subject to change:

• Southwest has reduced its San Diego service from daily to Sundays-only from June 8 through Aug. 5, and will not fly the route at all from Aug. 6 through Sept. 30. The current schedule shows service going back to six days a week in October.

• Southwest's Las Vegas service is going from daily to two times a week in July. It's scheduled to go back to daily in August.

• Southwest canceled its six-days-a-week service to Los Angeles for the month of August. It is scheduled to return to five days a week in September and six days in October.

• American Airlines reduced its service to Chicago from three trips a day to two in May and June. It is scheduled to return to three flights a day except for two on Sunday beginning beginning July 8. A three-flights-per-day schedule is projected to resume in October.

Icelandair accounted for only about a 1/10th of a percent of Tampa International's passengers, but however few in number, some of them had many questions Tuesday, especially about flights they booked for the fall.

Danielle Dixon of Tampa booked a round-trip on Icelandair in November, but when she called Monday to check on its status, "it appeared they did not know anything, either."

"After a 20-minute conversation and being placed on hold several times, I was told that my round trip flight for November was still confirmed and 'good to go,' " Dixon, 34, said in an email. "The representative advised that these cancellations were only for August flights using the Boeing 737 Max jets — miraculously ours is a 757. However that did not give me much comfort. The rep assured me that flights would continue out of Tampa, but if there were any changes passengers would be notified 30 days in advance. Seems like passengers may be facing last-minute cancellations and changes to their flights in the coming months. I will definitely be contacting them again in the coming months just for peace of mind."

Icelandair's public relations team did not respond Tuesday to a Tampa Bay Times inquiry about what Dixon had heard, or what other plans the airline has to work with travelers who booked flights out of Tampa.

Meanwhile, there's no sure date for when the 737 Max will fly again.

A top U.S. regulator recently said the 737 Max should be back in the air by December. It's not possible to give an exact date, but when asked whether the plane would resume service this year or next, Federal Aviation Administration associate administrator for aviation safety Ali Bahrami said remarks by Boeing chief executive officer Dennis Muilenburg projecting a return by the end of 2019 sounded correct.

The FAA is "under a lot of pressure," Bahrami said at a conference in Cologne, Germany, but the Max will return to service "when we believe it will be safe," following reviews of its design, flight testing and other checks.

Heading into this week's much-watched Paris Air Show, Boeing reported getting merely one order in April and none in May. On Tuesday, it announced that the parent company of British Airways and other carriers had signed a letter of intent for 200 Boeing 737 aircraft — its first sale of the jet since the crashes.

At the Paris Air Show, Muilenburg also told reporters that Boeing's communication after the crashes with regulators, customers and the public "was not consistent. And that's unacceptable."

Samuel Engel, a senior executive at the airline and aircraft-finance consultant ICF, told the Associated Press that public doubt and fear about flying on the 737 Max is too high now, but that it's expected to lessen over time.

"I do believe that that aircraft will get back in the air and commercially minded airlines will buy it," Engel said. "But just not next week."

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This report includes information from the Associated Press, the Seattle Times and Bloomberg.