ATLANTA—WestJet Airlines is managing the Boeing 737 MAX grounding in part by re-shuffling its cabin-modification schedule, pulling 737 Next Generation (NG) models out of planned upgrade lines and subbing in MAXs.
The Calgary-based carrier operates 13 of the newest 737s, and like the rest of its Boeing narrowbody fleet, the MAXs are part of a cabin-upgrade program tied to the introduction of its 787s earlier this year. WestJet is setting up multiple modification lines to install new cabin amenities in the narrowbodies, including a new two-by-two premium economy seating configuration up front. The carrier's plan was to run its 737NGs through the 10-day modification first, and had completed prototyping when Transport Canada on March 13 announced it would join what would become a global ban on MAX operations.
The timing of the MAX ban was fortunate for WestJet, because it was just about to begin inducting 737NGs for final modifications. The airline's technical operations team quickly changed course, pulling eight 737NGs from the modification schedule and swapping in MAXs to give it temporary lift. The tentative schedule has the 737NG modifications starting in August, a WestJet source says, but that depends in part on whether the MAXs are back in operation. If the MAXs, grounded in the wake of the second fatal 737 MAX 8 accident in five months, do not get clearance to return to service, WestJet will need its 737NGs, and would likely push the modifications off more. Boeing is working on software upgrades that target flight control logic issues at the center of the two accidents, including the March 10 crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 that triggered the grounding.
In the meantime, the airline's fleet is being stretched to the limit to cover the 35 daily flights and 3.6% of available seat miles that the MAX provided. In some cases, widebodies are flying routes where MAXs were, maintaining capacity but not frequency. In other cases, flights are being cut. The changes have left the airline with no spare aircraft and no margin for cancellations, vp-technical operations John Kelly said at Aviation Week's MRO Americas.
"It's put a lot of stress on the rest of the fleet," he said. "If an airplane goes [out of service] on us, we don't have a spare.
The airline has emphasized keeping deferred maintenance to a minimum so issues do not build up and force aircraft out of service, Kelly said. The focus has kept the minimum equipment list item count to 0.5 issues or below per airframe, he said.
WestJet's 129-aircraft mainline fleet includes 109 737NGs. It has 43 MAXs on order in addition to the 13 in its fleet.