Grounded MAX provides temporary cargo capacity boost on some routes

Following two crashes of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 within five months of one another, the aircraft has been grounded globally. While the development is bad optics for Boeing, as carriers race to replace grounded aircraft, the impact on cargo capacity is varied and could temporarily boost available capacity on some routes.

Following the crash of Ethiopian Airlines’ 737 MAX 8 shortly after take-off last Sunday, the majority of the aircraft in operation have been grounded globally. The incident bears resemblance to a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 that crashed off the coast of Indonesia last October, but the cause of the crash has not yet been determined. Despite no clear evidence of technical flaws in the MAX 8’s aircraft design, the negative optics of the situation has been enough to compel government aviation authorities globally to ground the aircraft.

On March 12, more than 71 percent of the world’s fleet of 340 MAX 8s were grounded, save for a few carriers based in the U.S. and Canada. Those carriers’ continued use of the aircraft was short-lived as the following day, the US Federal Aviation Administration also released an emergency order prohibiting the use of the 737 MAX 8 by U.S.-certified operators or within the territory of the United States. The order remains in effect until the issuance of an applicable FAA order rescinding or modifying the order. Transport Canada followed suit and issued an order prohibiting operators from flying the MAX 8 within Canadian territory.

In response to Transport Canada’s prohibition on MAX 8 operations and to ensure the safety of its customers, In an Air Canada statement issued on March 19, the carrier said that it too had grounded its 24 MAX 8s until further notice – 6 percent of its 400-aircraft fleet – in compliance with Transport Canada’s safety notice. The carrier said that the grounding will be effective until at least July 1, 2019, and that in the meantime, it would adjust its flight schedules to replace the removed MAX 8s with alternative aircraft.

As part of its efforts to bring in other aircraft to replace scheduled MAX 8 flights, Air Canada has substituted its MAX 8s with 777-300ER aircraft on seven flights from Vancouver (YVR) and Honolulu (HNL) between March 13 to March 19, according to data from Flightradar24. Beyond mitigating potential disruption in services for customers, however, the aircraft substitution actually offers the carrier more available cargo capacity – compared to the MAX 8 that can hold approximately 3 tonnes of cargo, the 777-300ER offers can hold up to 20 tonnes of cargo, dependent on passenger load.

Air Canada told our sister publication Cargo Facts that the aircraft substitution will increase its available cargo capacity during this period, but that the company is reluctant to issue any statements regarding the matter, as these flight adjustments are temporary and fluctuating as the situation evolves. Air Canada also said it is “hard to say specifically” whether the aircraft substitution will have a positive impact on monthly or annual cargo throughput figures.

Other airlines with grounded MAX 8s that also maintain 777-300ER aircraft in their fleet, including American Airlines Cargo – which has 27 MAX 8s, making up 2 percent of its fleet – could also possibly swap the aircraft to attain increased space for cargo until investigations into the crashes and air-worthiness of the MAX 8 aircraft design have been resolved. However, American Airlines has not clarified how it is repositioning aircraft across its network, other than to say that affected cargo customers have been contacted.

Ultimately, carriers must also consider the impact of substituting MAX 8 flights with 777-300ERs on regular routes, but the jump in capacity offered by the latter aircraft could provide a welcome bump to carriers’ cargo volumes during the interim period.