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WestJet Airlines Ltd.’s ultra-low-cost carrier Swoop only has seven planes in service, so it’s no wonder passenger complaints ensued after unscheduled maintenance forced the budget brand to simultaneously ground two of its jets and cancel 23 flights during the past week.
But Swoop’s operational problems were made even worse because of the prolonged grounding of Boeing 737 Max planes, said aviation industry experts.
Although Swoop doesn’t operate any Max jets, it would typically turn to its parent company WestJet or a short-term charter to replace capacity if it needed to park a plane for longer-than-expected maintenance.
But WestJet does not have any surplus capacity to spare since the Max fleet was grounded globally this spring after two fatal crashes, a move that required the Canadian airline to park 13 planes.
“WestJet is totally ‘maxed’ out, as they have been scrambling to fill the gaps left by the Boeing Max fleet grounding,” Robert Kokonis, president of consultancy AirTrav Inc., said in an email.
Airlines around the world are trying to fill those gaps with their remaining assets in an effort to keep up with demand during the busy summer season. Canada’s largest airlines, WestJet and Air Canada, have both suspended their financial guidance as it is not clear when authorities will approve the Boeing 737 Max fleet’s return to the skies.
In the meantime, WestJet has delayed lease returns of older planes and held off on transferring aircraft to Swoop, Kokonis said. Other carriers with Max planes have taken similar measures, along with entering short-term leases for additional aircraft.
“This has dried up the available pool of really short-term charter aircraft that could be popped into a schedule at short notice,” he said.
Unfortunately, that meant disappointment for wannabe Swoop passengers who had booked tickets to destinations including Las Vegas, Halifax and Edmonton from July 5 to 10. Some were rebooked on flights as long as five days later when Swoop discovered an engine on one plane had a leaking oil seal and needed replacement.
“This requires a significant amount of work and disassembly in order to fully repair the issue,” spokeswoman Karen McIsaac said in an emailed statement. “Swoop looked at leasing other aircraft, but due to the grounding of the MAX there is limited availability.”
Swoop brought in extra staff at its contact centre to respond to customers by email and on social media, where the airline received a flurry of angry posts. It rebooked people on the next available Swoop flight and, if that wasn’t suitable, tried to find alternative arrangements or offered cancellations with full refunds.
Swoop is conducting a full review of the incident so it can make changes to regain customer trust, McIsaac said. It has already determined the need for more support in the call centre, she added.
Unexpected disruptions have an outsized impact on ultra-low-cost airlines such as Swoop, especially ones with such a small fleet, said Michael Taylor, practice lead for travel at research company JD Power.
“It’s all about efficiency of aircraft,” he said. “They rely on keeping their aircraft in the air.”
But it’s not just a budget brand problem. Rebooking passengers on any airline is more challenging than it was five years ago because an improved world economy has resulted in more people purchasing flights, especially in North America, Taylor said.
Most people are flying on their own dime and aren’t particularly brand loyal, he said.
Swoop’s problems over the past week are a “black eye,” Taylor added, but people will keep choosing it as long as its low prices bump it up the list on search engines.
“Their business model is the lowest price,” he said. “That will attract people.”