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On Wednesday, America's Federal Aviation Administration joined the rest of the world and grounded the Boeing 737 MAX 8, the airplane involved in a deadly crash in Ethiopia on Sunday, and another in Indonesia five months ago. New data and evidence led the agency to reverse course, the FAA said in the statement, including “newly refined satellite data” made available to the agency on Wednesday morning. The agency demanded all US-operated 737 MAX jets remain on the ground until further notice. (Those in the air at the time could reach their destinations, then sit still.)
One thing the grounding definitely does not mean: mass disruption. “People with their luggage sleeping on the ground at the airport—it’s not going to be like that,” says Ahmed Abdelghany, a professor who specializes in operations management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Think of it like this: One aircraft typically runs three to four flights per day, depending on their length. And the 737 MAX family (which includes three near-identical airplanes, the 7, 8, and 9, differentiated by their seat configurations) only started shipping in May 2017, so 387 exist worldwide. That may sound like a lot of airplanes—but American Airlines alone operates almost 1,000 passenger jets.
Southwest, which has the world’s largest MAX fleet, of 34 planes, says they account for less than five percent of its more than 4,000 daily flights. Other airline operators have many fewer: the commercial airline leasing and financing company GECAS has 25, American Airlines has 24, and Air Canada has 23. United Airlines, the only other US operator with the aircraft in their fleet, uses 14.
Airlines tend to prepare for even the most random disruptions in air service. Each has a sprawling operations center, where executives, mechanics, pilots, and dispatchers regularly have powwows, talking through how to route and re-route aircraft. Each airline has software tools for recalibrating flights—and “some analysts with very good experience can do it manually,” says Abdelghany.
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