Garneau meeting with expert aviation panel, has no plans to ground Boeing 737

MONTREAL — Transport Minister Marc Garneau has cleared his schedule for the day in order to meet with experts on how to deal with the issue of Boeing's 737 Max 8 aircraft, which is being grounded or banned by a growing number of countries.

The 737 Max 8 continues to fly in North American skies, but faces grounding orders or airspace bans from the European Union as well as Australia, China and other states in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 people Sunday.

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Garneau said Tuesday that he has no plans to ground Canada's fleet of 737 Max 8 aircraft, but that "all options are on the table".

"That could include grounding the planes, but at the same time I will evaluate all possibilities and not jump to conclusions before we can clearly evaluate the situation," Garneau said, stressing he would not "be influenced by emotions."

The Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed everyone on board — including 18 Canadians — has raised concerns over parallels to a Lion Air crash of the same model of aircraft in Indonesia that killed 189 people last October.

Earlier Tuesday, authorities from the U.K., France, Germany and Ireland announced grounding orders or airspace bans on the aircraft. They were followed by similar orders from the Netherlands, Poland and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. Turkish Airlines also announced Tuesday it is grounding all Boeing 737 Max aircraft in its fleet until further notice.

Robert Kokonis, president of Toronto-based consulting firm AirTrav Inc., says the European Union Aviation Safety Agency's suspension of all Max 8 and Max 9 planes puts "massive pressure" on Garneau.

"It’s really going to give the minister pause for thought," he said. "I think they’ve been feeling an unprecedented level of heat from social media — both airlines and aviation regulators."

Air Canada has 24 Max 8 aircraft, which is uses mainly for domestic and U.S. routes,though some hop across the Atlantic as well.

Calgary-based WestJet Airlines Ltd. has 13 Max 8s in its fleet, while Toronto-based Sunwing Airlines Inc. has four Max 8 aircraft.

A grounding order in Canada would prove costly for Canadian airlines, says Karl Moore, a professor at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management.

"It would have a considerable impact on both of them, because that's a lot of flights every day," he said.

"You'd have to cancel some flights. You'd try to use other planes, which are suboptimal. A Q-400 is too small. You could use two big planes, which means that you're wasting money on fuel and you're not making money."

The airlines are also facing concerned passengers who want to re-book their flights to avoid the Max 8.

Flight Centre travel agency said Canadian airlines are not waiving flight-change or cancellation fees for passengers who want to switch to another aircraft.

Air Canada and WestJet did not respond to requests for comment on fee waiving.

"We continue to monitor the situation and based on current info, and recommendations by government safety regulators, Transport Canada, the FAA, and the manufacturer, we will continue to operate our normal B737 schedule and our current re-booking policies remain in place," Air Canada said in a tweet Tuesday.

At least four of the airline's flights have been affected. Flights 860, 861, 822 and 823 between Halifax, London-Heathrow and St. John's between Mar. 12 and Mar. 14 have been cancelled.

The Montreal-based company is a part of the Star Alliance network, whose airlines sport about 75 Max 8 aircraft — the bulk of them operated by carriers in countries that have halted flights of that plane.

Kokonis says airlines can either resort to other planes in their fleet, hunt for short-term leases of alternative aircraft or reroute passengers to competitors. "That means you have to forfeit the revenue from that ticket," he said.

Larry Vance, an aviation consultant and former Transportation Safety Board investigator, cautioned against drawing too many comparisons between Sunday’s disaster and Lion Air Flight 610, which plunged into the Java Sea on Oct. 29.

The main similarities appear to be the aircraft model and the way the plane swiftly lost elevation after takeoff, briefly recovered and then plummeted to the ground.

“If I had a ticket to fly this afternoon and it was on that airplane, I would go to the airport, I would check in normally, I would get aboard the flight and go to sleep and enjoy my flight and get on with my day,” Vance said.

“The odds of me meeting my maker on that flight are as close to zero as you can get.”

Boeing said late Monday the FAA has told the U.S.-based aircraft manufacturer it must install safety-related software updates to the 737 Max 8s.

With files from Aly Thomson and Alison Auld

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC, TSX:WJA)

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