WestJet marks milestone with Canada's 1st Boeing 737 Max flight since 2019

Nearly two years after being grounded following two deadly crashes, Boeing's 737 Max aircraft returned to Canadian airspace Thursday morning with a WestJet flight that carried 71 travellers plus crew from Calgary to Vancouver.

Passengers not overly concerned as previously grounded aircraft flies from Calgary to Vancouver

A WestJet flight from Calgary to Vancouver, which is the first commercial flight of the Boeing 737 Max in Canada since the aircraft was cleared to fly again in Canadian airspace, lifts off in Calgary on Jan. 21, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Nearly two years after being grounded following two deadly crashes, Boeing's 737 Max aircraft returned to Canadian airspace Thursday morning.

WestJet flight 115 landed at Vancouver International Airport at 8:12 a.m. PT, carrying around 71 guests from Calgary, along with members of the crew. Passengers preparing to board the flight said they weren't overly concerned about travelling on the plane.

"The return of WestJet's Max aircraft marks an operational milestone after 22 months of intense review and considerable learning," WestJet president and CEO Ed Sims said in a press conference after the flight's arrival.

"While of course this is a very different operating environment than any of us would wish due to COVID-19, we use today as a milestone to look forward to days ahead when all 30 of our Boeing Max 8 aircraft are once again connecting Canadians across the length and breadth of our wonderful country," Sims said.

WestJet Airlines president and CEO Edward Sims, who was on the flight, spoke after it landed at Vancouver International Airport and hailed the return of the Max aircraft as a 'operational milestone after 22 months of intense review and considerable learning.' (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

It's the first commercial flight on a 737 Max in Canada since the aircraft was grounded in March 2019 after deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that investigators said was caused by a faulty sensor system.

Transport Canada lifted its grounding order for the Max on Wednesday after approving design changes to the plane and requiring pilots to undergo additional training.

Passengers not overly concerned

Three passengers on the flight said they had been emailed by WestJet notifying them that they would be flying on the Max, while one didn't know ahead of time.

None of the four was overly concerned, saying they trusted that the plane had been properly tested.

A WestJet employee assists people checking in for a domestic flight at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond on Thursday. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

"It's interesting to be the first one on it, but I'm not too concerned," said Chloe Marshall, who wasn't aware in advance that she would be flying on the Max. "I think they have protocol in place and they know what they're doing, so I just trust the process."

Lowell Van Zuiden pointed to the lengthy review process.

"I suspect that they've probably gone through about as much certification, checking, and everything else as they possibly can, so I'm not worried about that," he said.

WestJet offers extra flexibility on Max flights

Thursday's press conference with WestJet executives is part of a campaign to reintroduce the Max to service while assuring the public that the plane's safety issues have been addressed.

WestJet will temporarily offer additional flexibility in its change and cancellation policies to customers scheduled to fly on the Max, with different conditions depending on how far in advance a passenger wants to change the itinerary.

The policies granting extra flexibility will be applicable until Feb. 28, the website says, but a WestJet spokeswoman said the company has no plans to change or remove the policies after that date.

On its website, WestJet says passengers booked on a Max who are looking to change their flight more than a day from departure can book on a different flight within 24 hours of the original flight at no additional cost. They can also book on a flight outside the 24-hour window with no change fee.

Passengers will be able to cancel their trip until one day before the flight to receive a travel credit.

The airline does not address fees for passengers looking to change flights less than a day in advance, but invites them to contact the airline to manage the booking.

Robert Kokonis, president of Toronto-based consulting firm AirTrav Inc., said WestJet's decision to offer flexible change and cancellation policies reflects the pressure airlines face in encouraging people to fly amid the business challenges of COVID-19 — including waiving fees that would otherwise give them additional revenue.

"For the carriers, it's a double-edged sword to a certain degree," Kokonis said. "Airlines need to attract whatever remaining business there is."

Air Canada expected to follow suit

Air Canada is expected to follow WestJet in returning the Max to commercial service on Feb. 1. Sunwing, which also flies the Max, has not yet announced when it plans to return the plane to service.

Like WestJet, Air Canada plans to give passengers booked on a Max special options for changes to their trip, including the option of changing their flight at no extra charge.

Carriers in the U.S. that have started flying the Max have rolled out similar policies, including announcing the type of aircraft during boarding, in an effort to be transparent with passengers.

Transport Canada, which conducted a nearly two-year review of the aircraft, has said Canadians should feel confident that the design changes the agency required of the Max will ensure its safety.


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