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Wednesday, the FAA grounded every 737 MAX aircraft in the US. This includes the 737 MAX 8 aircraft flown by Southwest Airlines and American Airlines as well as the 737 MAX 9 planes flown by United Airlines. While the impact of the grounding is actually quite limited, there are some cancellations of which every flyer should be aware. By sheer numbers, Southwest passengers have been the most affected since the airline operates 34 of these planes (American Airlines has 24 and United 14). With that being said, if you are on a flight that is scheduled to fly on a 737 MAX aircraft or has already been canceled due to the circumstances, there are some steps you can take. (Note that Boeing 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900  aircraft flown by many US carriers are not in the MAX category and are not affected by the FAA grounding.)

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is probably offering the most flexible accommodations for families scheduled to fly on a 737 MAX aircraft. Anyone currently scheduled to fly on a 737 MAX plane through March 31 can go ahead and change the flight for free, even if the flight has not yet been canceled. (Fortunately, flights to Hawaii are on the 737-800 aircraft, so Southwest’s new routes starting in just a few days are not affected.)

The airline’s announcement states:

“Currently, we are offering flexible accommodations through Sunday, March 31. Customers who are holding reservations may rebook in the original class of service or travel standby (within 14 days of their original date of travel between the original city-pairs and in accordance with our accommodation procedures) without paying any additional charge.”

To check to see if your scheduled travel between now and March 31 involves the affected aircraft, go to Southwest.com and do a mock booking for your flight. Click on the flight number and a notice with your aircraft information will appear — if it states “Boeing 737 MAX8” as your aircraft type, your flight is affected.

To change your flight, go to Upcoming Trips in your Southwest account. Locate the affected reservation, click on “Change flight” and you should see a pop-up notice letting you know that there is a travel waiver in place for this particular flight. If you do not see this notice, then your flight is either not affected or falls after the travel-waiver grace period of March 31, 2019.

A sample travel waiver for an impacted flight (although all flights through 3/31 can be changed)
A sample travel waiver for a particular flight (note that all flights through 3/31 can now be changed).

You’ll be able to switch your reservation to any flight within 14 days before or after your original flight departure. You can even select a different departure and arrival city as long as it is within the same city pairs. For example, if you are currently flying out of Baltimore (BWI), but prefer a flight out of Washington, DC (DCA) or Dulles (IAD), you can change to one of those other two airports. You can actually pick any flight within the 14-day window — even if the new price is significantly more expensive — if there is still a seat left for sale in your same fare bucket. If you purchased a “Wanna Get Away Fare,” however, but only “Anytime” fares are available for sale in your new desired itinerary, the system will not allow you to select that new flight.

If you have a Companion Pass reservation attached to your itinerary, you’ll have to first cancel your companion’s flight and then add them back on after you make your flight change. Just make sure that there are at least two seats available for sale — one for you and one for your companion — before selecting your new flight. Note that your companion’s ticket can be pulled from any fare bucket.

Also, for those who have already purchased Early-Bird Check-in, it will follow your new reservation as long as the change is made more than 24 hours before departure of the old and new flight. This is the one benefit of changing your flight instead of canceling and rebooking.

If for some reason you are not able to change your flight online, or if there are no other flight options available, my best suggestion is to reach out to Southwest via Twitter. They have been extremely responsive and this will allow you to skip long hold times on the phone.

American Airlines

For the most part, the only affected passengers are the ones flying to/from Miami. The vast majority of MAXes actually fly out of Miami, with the most flights from MIA to New York La Guardia (LGA) and then to Boston (BOS). Some flights from Miami to Barbados (BGI) are also on the MAX. The one non-Miami route is Washington, DC, National Airport (DCA) to Los Angeles (LAX). Flights from other airports should not be affected.

American has informed its customers that:

“Affected customers can rebook by contacting our reservations team. If a flight is canceled, customers may request a full refund by visiting our website. Customers who booked through a travel agent are requested to contact their agency directly.”

Unlike Southwest, American is not allowing passengers to proactively change their flight if the itinerary includes a scheduled 737 MAX aircraft. Instead, American Airlines is rebooking customers on the next available flight if their flight is canceled. If your flight is not canceled, that means American was able to swap it out with another aircraft.

While American does not have an official policy in place on its website, the airline’s Twitter team did tell me that for flights canceled through April 3, you’ll be able to change the date of your flight at no charge to anytime between now and April 5. I was also informed that you can cancel your flight for a full refund if no other flight option works.

Unfortunately, you are not able to change your flight online and getting through to customer service can be a time-consuming process. American told me that you can contact its Twitter team as well to try to change your rebooked flight to a different itinerary, if needed.

United Airlines

United Airlines passengers are actually the least affected and there is no information regarding the 737 MAX  grounding on its website. The airline’s main statement, released  via Twitter, says:

“Our MAX aircraft account for roughly 40 flights a day and through a combination of spare aircraft and rebooking customers, we do not anticipate a significant operational impact as a result of this order. We will continue to work with our customers to help minimize any disruption to their travel.”

Since United’s MAXes were at many hubs, they are easily able to pull in replacement aircraft for many routes. If you are on a flight that was originally scheduled for a MAX 787 aircraft and the flight is, in fact, canceled, United will automatically rebook you on the next available flight and send you a confirmation via email.

Similar to American, United does not have any formal policy for this situation in place, although it seems as though it is being the least flexible among the US carriers. If you are not satisfied with your new flight option, it does not seem like you’ll have too many alternatives. Through its Twitter team, I was informed that you can pretty much only select a new flight, free of cost, for the same day. With that being said, if there really are no alternatives that work for you, United will issue you a refund if you need to fully cancel your reservation.

Bottom Line

If you are flying with many family members in your party, you’ll want to be as proactive as possible to ensure there are enough seats on a new flight. This is why I appreciate that Southwest is allowing its customers to change their flight in advance and providing such a long grace period — this allows those passengers affected to consider a variety of options. American is also doing its customers right by giving them decent flexibility, but they will only rebook you if your flight is officially canceled. United is, by far, offering the least flexible options, although the airline’s 737 MAX fleet is more limited and it seems fewer customers will be affected with a canceled flight.

Jennifer Yellin covers family travel deals for TPG and blogs at Deals We Like. Follow her family’s adventures on Twitter and Instagram.

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