Relief and Shock: How Passengers Just off a 737 MAX Reacted to the US Grounding

Mar 14, 2019

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The scene at LaGuardia Airport’s (LGA) Terminal B on Wednesday afternoon was seemingly business as usual. Passengers disembarked American Airlines Flight 1556, crowded the baggage claim, and waited for the conveyor belt to jolt into action.

Yet, most of them didn’t know that the aircraft they’d arrived on — the Boeing 737 MAX 8 — had been grounded in the US by order of the Federal Aviation Administration just less than an hour earlier.

It didn’t take long for that to change, however.  With TV crews swarming, and breaking news and social media alerts on their phones, the passengers of AA1556 from Miami quickly understood that they had just stepped off a plane that had been banned from flying.

Some of them reacted with relief, and others were completely shocked.

Cynthia W., who preferred not to give her last name, is a good example of the latter. For the past five days, she’d been on a cruise with family and friends. Relatively off the grid, she didn’t know about the stir the that the fatal Ethiopian Airlines crash left in its wake, its connection to the Lion Air crash that happened months before or the countries and airlines grounding the 737 MAX all over the world.

“I read about the crash, but I didn’t know it was related,” Cynthia said. She originally thought that the commotion (including a 30-minute delay in Miami) had something to do with the impending bad weather conditions. “When we were leaving, we were delayed because they had to check something,” she added. “They didn’t tell us what.”

Across the board, passengers reported that despite the delay, nothing about the flight experience seemed particularly abnormal.

Khalid Khalid, a 33-year-old frequent flyer from Wisconsin, admitted that he didn’t find anything strange about the plane. “The attendant told me that they were grounding it after this [flight],” he said. “But I didn’t notice anything.”

Usually, Khalid checks to see what type of aircraft he’s flying before embarking, but this time he didn’t. “I just didn’t pay attention,” he said. “When I was boarding, I realized.” However, when the realization dawned on him that he’d be aboard a MAX 8, he admitted that he didn’t really care.

Claudia and Gonzalo Otaola are frequent flyers on the Miami to LaGuardia route. Gonzalo, prior to boarding, knew about the issues with the MAXs but decided to keep the information to himself. “I wasn’t concerned at all,” Otaola said. “The pilots here have many, many, many hours flying this plane. They know more about the program.”

The grounding of the 737 MAXs in the US will affect 350,000 seats a week with American carriers. Southwest has 34 Boeing 737 MAX 8s, American Airlines has 24 and United has 14 of the larger MAX 9s, which are also grounded in the US. The most affected route, in terms of daily flights, is Miami to LaGuardia and back, with 56 flights a week on American Airlines.

Despite the potential delays and cancellations to come, Otaola hopes all will return to normal soon.

“Hysteria isn’t the word for it, but it’s been one country, then another one, then another one,” said Otaola. “The pressure is gigantic for the United States. I think it’s the right move, just to be safe, but I don’t think it’s going to last too long. I hope that in three days I go back in my MAX 8 to Miami.”

Featured image of LGA by Bruce Bennett / Getty Images.

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