By Alex Macheras
In an exclusive interview, Air Italy’s chief operating officer Rossen Dimitrov revealed to me the impact of the ongoing Boeing 737 MAX grounding.
The airline was one of the first airlines in Europe to take delivery of the 737 MAX, an order originally placed by Qatar Airways, the 49% shareholder in Air Italy. While the Italian carrier has only three 737 Max 8 jets in the fleet, the cost of the grounding is “incredible” according to Dimitrov.
In March 2019, the safety of the new Boeing short-haul flagship came into the spotlight following the fatal crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302. Until now, the worldwide fleet of 737 MAX jets remains grounded following legitimate concerns that an anti-stall feature known as ‘MCAS’ may have incorrectly pitched the aircraft down soon after take-off in both the Ethiopian Airlines crash and Lion Air crash in October 2018. Italian authorities grounded the 737 MAX jet following an EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) ban on the aircraft type. EASA’s ban came into place several hours before the FAA in the US had officially grounded the jet.
“This has been a very costly issue for us. The 737 MAX grounding is very costly from two perspectives: on one side we have these aircraft on the ground, and hence our network is disrupted as a result. On the other side, we’re paying for aircraft we do not use.”
Up until EASA’s decision to ban the jet, 737 MAX aircraft were still flying in the immediate aftermath of the Ethiopian Airlines crash. An Air Italy 737 MAX was en route to Cairo, Egypt when Europe announced a ban on all 737 MAX variants.
It’s still there today.
“We have one 737 MAX stuck in Cairo. The aircraft is secured and under watch, and we are working with our industry colleagues in Cairo to ensure the aircraft is taken care of. It’s very unfortunate for us to have the aircraft stuck there in this way” Dimitrov revealed.
Like other operators, Air Italy was forced to establish last-minute leasing agreements in order to compensate for the sudden removal of three aircraft from its fleet. “At the moment we have protected our network for the summer with leased capacity arrangements. We have a damp lease arrangement whereby our crew operate aircraft that are flown by another, our codeshare partner, Bulgaria Air — who stepped in to help us very quickly.”
Dimitrov explained that other complications the carrier is facing as a result of the 737 MAX ban include how Air Italy has been left with a surplus of pilots. “We are not currently able to utilise the pilots we have across the fleet as we would want to, and this is not ideal”.
In spite of this all, Dimitrov is confident Boeing will recover from this crisis soon. “Boeing is a very old and established company, and we are confident they will get this sorted. I’m in constant communication with Boeing, and I know they will find a fix for this aircraft. I know there’s a very rigorous process they have to undergo right now, and they’re doing it.”
Dimitrov does recognise, however, that passengers will continue to have their concerns about the 737 MAX, even when the ban has been lifted. “I believe that there will be quite a bit of uncertainty from a passenger’s standpoint, but we believe it will be one of the safest aircraft types in the air given how it’s been thrown under the spotlight in such an intense way. I’m confident in Boeing that they’ll do everything required.”
Elsewhere today, China Eastern Airlines has formally requested compensation from Boeing for the grounding of its 14 737 MAX aircraft. Like Air Italy, the airline has complained of increasing costs as the Boeing crisis continues.
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir
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