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When regulators grounded the Boeing 737 Max plane back in March following two fatal crashes, airlines everywhere had to adjust. They canceled thousands of flights. They took some older planes out of mothballs. And now months later, it's become clear just how big of a change this has been for both the industry and passengers. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Southwest Airlines never flew very many planes in and out of Newark Liberty Airport. It's a United hub. But Southwest has its fans in the area - people such as Nancy Dunne of Maplewood, N.J., who regularly takes it to see her parents in Chicago. So when Southwest said the 737 Max grounding would force it to cancel all service to Newark last week, Dunne was bereft.
NANCY DUNNE: For me, this is really a big thing. I'll figure something out. Maybe it's time for me to move back to Chicago.
ZARROLI: Dunne has a ticket to go home for Thanksgiving, but Southwest won't be flying from Newark by then. The 737 Max is Boeing's top seller, and Southwest flies more of them than any other U.S. carrier. American and United also fly the plane, and they also had to cancel flights when regulators took the plane out of service.
RICHARD ABOULAFIA: Obviously, it was a shock to everybody in the industry.
ZARROLI: Airline analyst Richard Aboulafia says for a while after the grounding, airlines were able to make due, in part by using older planes.
ABOULAFIA: But, of course, this has the grown significantly as a problem over the past few months.
ZARROLI: Just how much of a problem has become clearer in recent days. American said it has been forced to cancel 115 flights per day through November. Because the 737 Max carries 200 passengers, the cancellations potentially affect 23,000 people every day.
Over in the Middle East, the airline flydubai said it was cancelling up to 15 flights a day back in March. And Singapore Airlines says capacity on its budget carrier will drop 3% in the coming year.
With so many cancellations, planes are naturally becoming more crowded. Southwest in particular says it's flying more passengers on each jet. Yi Gao is a professor of aviation technology at Purdue.
YI GAO: For customers, what people will notice is that compared with the same season of last year is the airplanes have become fuller.
ZARROLI: Southwest also said last week that the grounding cost it $175 million in earnings during April, May and June. Boeing will compensate the airlines for at least part of the money they've lost. But how much they'll get has to be negotiated. Fortunately, Gao says, this is a really good time for the industry.
GAO: At the moment, the U.S. economy is strong. So people are traveling. No matter business person or it's the leisure travelers, they're all traveling.
ZARROLI: So even with the 737 Max out of service, airlines like Southwest are still making good money. But Richard Aboulafia says airlines such as Southwest also face a problem. The 737 Max was part of a new generation of planes that were supposed to use less fuel.
ABOULAFIA: Increasingly, there are other airlines that have new generation Airbus jets, and they're at a competitive advantage in terms of fuel burn and efficiency relative to people who are stuck operating older equipment because the new stuff isn't coming online.
ZARROLI: The longer the grounding goes on, the more expensive it gets for airlines that plan to rely on the 737 Max and the better it gets for airlines such as Delta that don't. And right now no one can say for sure when the plane will be flying again. Boeing says it hopes to get the plane in the air by October but also says it could end up taking longer than that.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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