Airlines Are Making Scared Passengers Pay the Price to Avoid Flying on Boeing 737 MAX 8 Planes

March 12, 2019, 6:26 PM UTC

Update [Wednesday, 3:09 p.m.]: The U.S. has just grounded all Boeing 737 Max planes.

“It is good news that the 737 MAX will now get the focus it needs to address the concerns of undetermined safety issues. We must focus on the needed fix, rather than the uncertainty of flight,” Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, tells Fortune. “Lives must come first always. But a brand is at stake as well. And that brand is not just Boeing. It’s America.”


On the morning after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302’s fatal crash near Addis Ababa’s airport that left 157 passengers and crew dead on Sunday, Kelly Starr stopped clicking through the harrowing images of crumpled pieces of metal and orphaned shoes and went straight to the American Airlines website to check on her upcoming flight.

“I was terrified,” the senior project manager told Fortune, after realizing her scheduled flight from Los Angeles to Jamaica was on one of the airline’s Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes—the same type of aircraft that has now been involved in two deadly crashes in less than six months.

In October, a Lion Air flight in Indonesia also crashed shortly after takeoff and killed all 189 passengers and crew. Despite the similarities between the two crashes, and a report that Boeing knew about a potentially dangerous flight-control flaw, the Boeing 737 Max 8 plane has not been flagged by the Federal Aviation Administration. But many airlines (AeroMexico, Cayman Airways, Royal Air Maroc, and Norwegian Air) and countries (China, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, Ethiopia, and the U.K.) have grounded all 737 MAX 8 planes or barred the planes from entering their airspace, pending further investigation.

Considering the extent to which the Boeing 737 MAX 8 has split experts’ safety opinions, Starr said that she was “hopeful that American would do the right thing” and change the concerned pair’s tickets to a different flight on a different aircraft without any issues. Although Starr had the option of rescheduling her flight without a fee, since she’d bought her tickets with airline miles, her friend Tiffany Christian, who was taking the trip with Starr, said she would have to spend $1,636 to change a single leg of her flight—nearly three times her original ticket cost.

Starr and Christian have now found themselves in a dilemma that many other anxious flyers have desperately taken to Twitter and customer service lines to resolve: They either have to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of fees airlines are declining to void, or fly on an aircraft they don’t feel comfortable in.

Airlines Still Standing by the Boeing 737 MAX 8

Spokespeople from American Airlines (currently operating 24 Boeing 737 MAX 8s), Southwest Airlines (34), Air Canada (24), WestJet (13), and Flydubai (11) sent Fortune nearly identical statements extending their sympathies to the victims of the Ethiopia Airlines crash, stating that there isn’t a safety concern, and reiterating that their standard change and cancellation policies apply.

But these statements are changing by the hour. While Norwegian told Fortune repeatedly Monday night that safety precautions had been taken, and thus it would maintain its regular fee structure, on Tuesday morning, Norwegian’s acting chief operating officer Tomas Hesthammer told Fortune, “In response to the temporary suspension of Being 737 MAX operations by multiple aviation authorities we have taken the decision to not operate flights using this aircraft type, until advised otherwise by the relevant aviation authorities.”

“We would like to apologize to customers for any inconvenienced caused, however, safety will always remain our top priority,” Hesthammer added,

The airline told Fortune that it would rebook and refund all affected customers.

Flight Attendant Versus Passenger Safety

Thus far, only some unions representing flight attendants and crews have been able to give their workers the option to opt out of flights that make them feel uncomfortable.

“We are currently working with Southwest Airlines Management and are confident a plan will be put into place that addresses that very issue,” Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which represents at least 16,000 Southwest flight attendants, told Fortune.

Lori Bassani, national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, told American Airlines’ employees that she had the option to avoid flying on Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes Monday. In a letter addressed to the 27,000 represented flight attendants, she wrote, “It is important for you to know that if you feel it is unsafe to work the 737 Max, you will not be forced to fly it.”

Starr expressed frustration that many passengers couldn’t also opt out of the flight due to safety concerns without a penalty.

“So you are telling me that I don’t matter?” Starr said. “That my humanity is not as important as theirs?”

For this very reason, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) released a statement Tuesday, demanding that the FAA temporarily ground the 737 Max fleet.

“This is about public confidence in the safety of air travel,” AFA president Sara Nelson told Fortune in a statement that acknowledges the importance of both mental and physical security. “The United States has the safest aviation system in the world, but Americans are looking for leadership in this time of uncertainty. The FAA must act decisively to restore the public faith in the system. Again, we caution everyone to not jump to conclusions and not interrupt the integrity of the investigations.”

Furthermore, an AFA spokesperson told Fortune that regardless of the airline, “There are options that are in place today for flight attendants who are concerned about their safety.” But each contract might approach internal trip trading and flight swapping systems differently.

Customer Service Nightmare

Twenty years ago, before Preeti Sharma was an executive assistant and corporate travel planner for a Vancouver-based tech company, she was a customer service representative at the short-lived airline Canada 3000.

“Now I’m in the opposite end of the spectrum,” she told Fortune, while spending her last hours on a Waikiki beach on a trip she had taken her mother on as a gift. “I keep thinking, ‘interesting.’ [What Air Canada’s customer service reps are doing] is not what I would have done.”

The mother and daughter’s Tuesday flight from Honolulu to Vancouver is on an Boeing 737 MAX 8, which Sharma didn’t feel comfortable taking, particularly since it flies almost exclusively over the Pacific Ocean.

“My mom is feeling anxiety, and she’s supposed to be relaxing,” said Sharma, 42, admitting that she was “freaking out” as well. “This is a retirement trip!”

Sharma and her sister Priya Pandit, who stayed in Canada, dedicated Sunday night through Tuesday morning calling and tweeting Air Canada’s customer service lines. As a last ditch effort, Pandit told Fortune she sent several emails to the airline, including to Air Canada president and CEO Calin Rovinescu.

The airline has not yet responded to her tweets or emails.

Vancouver venture capitalist Doug Roe, however, told Fortune he didn’t have any issues changing his flight from a Boeing 737 MAX 8 from Europe to North America without incurring a fee.

“But I have a Super Elite status,” which is given to travelers who spend at least $20,000 traveling on the airline a year, he said. “And let me put it this way, my assistant is the girl you want to call to fight a parking ticket for you.”

This wasn’t the case for Sharma, who has been an Air Canada enthusiast until this trip—so much so that she decided to gift 180 employees at her company $400 Air Canada vouchers for a holiday present.

Although she could have opted to book a different Air Canada flight for herself and her mother—Sharma said the airline gave her a total price of $1,000 with fees included—she decided to just buy new tickets through United Airlines for $800.

Christian decided to change airlines as well, flying Delta for $1,456, rather than paying $1,636 to change her American Airlines ticket, she said. Starr bought a ticket on the same flight.

“I spoke with five people at American for a total for five-plus hours today,” said Starr. “I want people to understand the pain that’s been caused over 24 planes and a lack of empathy.”