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Could my summer holiday flight be cancelled because of plane problems?

by Staff

International travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic started to be lifted in March 2022. Ever since, the airline industry has been struggling to keep pace with demand. At the same time, carriers have been putting up fares to take advantage of the limited supply of seats.

Looking ahead to summer 2024, the outlook is for higher prices still and less availability due to problems with the most popular aircraft for European flights: the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 family.

Delays in Boeing aircraft deliveries because of safety concerns, combined with an issue affecting some Airbus engines, means some airlines may struggle to fulfil their planned operations – and fares are likely to rise.

Airlines will charge whatever they can get away with – more enthusiastically than ever as they try to make up for the billions they lost during Covid. And with lots of money chasing fewer seats, they can cash in like never before on what the market will bear. British Airways’ parent company, IAG, has just announced record profits.

So could new flights cost even more – and might existing bookings be cancelled? These are the key questions and answers.

Which airlines are affected?

Two of the biggest budget airlines serving the UK will not have the aircraft fleets they expected when they planned their summer 2024 programmes.

Ryanair now expects to receive just 40 of the 57 planned Boeing 737 Max aircraft that were due to be delivered to Ryanair before the end of June 2024.

Wizz Air has 42 Airbus A320 series aircraft grounded for inspections of their Pratt & Whitney GTF (geared turbofan) engines.

The Lufthansa Group – which includes Eurowings, Swiss, Austrian Airlines and Brussels Airlines, as well as the German national carrier – is reported to have 62 Airbus aircraft on the ground.

While other leading airlines including British Airways, easyJet and Jet2 are encountering no such problems, the shortfall in seats is cutting availability and raising prices.

The 17 aircraft Ryanair now expects not to receive in time for summer would have flown a total of 20,000 seats per day – or 1.85 million in the course of July, August and September.

The airline’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said: “We expect these latest Boeing delivery delays, which regrettably are beyond Ryanair’s control, combined with the grounding of up to 20 per cent of our Airbus competitors’ A320 fleets in Europe, will lead to more constrained capacity and slightly higher air fares for consumers in Europe in summer 2024.”

He has predicted prices could rise by up to 10 per cent.

What exactly are the planemakers’ problems?

Boeing

The US maker has been unable to increase the rate of deliveries of 737 Max aircraft following an inflight scare in January, when a door plug blew out from the fuselage of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 shortly after take-off from Portland, Oregon.

The aircraft landed safely, but quality-control concerns have led the Federal Aviation Administration to demand close supervision of each new plane. The delivery delays are so significant that Ryanair has told investors that its projected passenger total to the end of March 2025 will fall from 205 million to below 200 million.

Airbus

The Toulouse-based manufacturer is blameless: the problem is that some of its planes are powered by Pratt & Whitney GTF (geared turbofan) engines. The engine maker has identified a potential problem of contamination in the powder metal used for some key components on some power plants.

The engines must be inspected earlier: removed, disassembled, examined and put back together by specialist teams. That could take two months for each engine. As a result, Wizz Air and the German airline Lufthansa have grounded more than 100 aircraft between them. 

Could flights already booked be cancelled?

Ryanair says it has already implemented schedule cuts at Dublin, Milan Malpensa, Warsaw Modlin and four Portuguese airports. The carrier says: “All affected passengers have already received schedule change notifications offering them alternative flight times or full refunds if they prefer.”

A Wizz Air spokesperson said: “Wizz Air has made no cuts to UK routes due to the Pratt & Whitney inspections and does not predict any further changes to UK routes this summer.”

Wizz Air has cancelled entire routes such as from London Luton to Dubrovnik and Nice for the summer, while other flights are being filleted: my Wizz Air flight booked to Sarajevo in April has been cancelled, with an alternative offered two days later. But the spokesperson said: “The London Luton to Dubrovnik route was cancelled before the Pratt and Whitney groundings began, and the route to Nice was dropped due to bigger demand for other routes.”

What happens if my flight is cancelled?

If any future cuts are made, European air passengers’ rights rules are on your side. The UK Civil Aviation Authority says that airlines cancelling flights must get you to your destination on the same day if at all possible, even if it means buying a ticket on another carrier.

Should the airline decline to book you with a rival, you can do so yourself – but keep the cancelling airline informed of your plans.

Should I book a summer flight now?

You might want to commit, even at annoyingly high fares. With a worldwide shortage of planes, it is difficult to see where substantial new capacity could come from.

Airlines such BA and Lufthansa could switch some long-haul planes to Europe to take up the extra demand.

Deploying large long-haul aircraft tactically on short European flights sometimes happens: Iberia and Finnair have done so on routes serving London Heathrow.

But in general, airlines make much more money from intercontinental flying than within Europe, and will not be inclined to move valuable assets to meet the shortfall.

Later in the summer, though, supply may move closer to balance with demand. Ryanair says it “will now work with Boeing to accept aircraft deliveries during the peak months of July, August and September 2024”.

Any additional flights are likely to appear in August and September; if you plan to travel in mid-September, it is probably wise to wait.

Finally, some planes could be kept in service longer than planned.

Listen to Simon Calder’s podcast on the problems affecting some operators of Airbus and Boeing aircraft

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