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Expect disruptions at Chicago’s airports over 737 groundings: expert

Southwest Airlines planes parked at gates

A transportation expert expects disruptions at Chicago's airports. | File photo

The grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 airplanes has the potential to create “lots of disruption” at the city’s two airports, an area expert said.

“Airlines simply don’t keep enough spares anymore to deal with the grounding of more than a couple of planes,” said Joe Schwieterman, a professor of transportation at DePaul University. “Southwest [Airlines] could lease a few planes to fill the gap but that’s going to take time. So the most pain will be felt in the next week, as they try to scramble to make adjustments.”

Schwieterman said he expects the problems to be greatest at Midway Airport because of Southwest’s “heavy reliance” on the grounded aircraft.

“Fortunately, we are at a fairly low travel season. So many passengers can be re-accommodated,” he said. “It’s not summer. We are not in the week before Christmas. The spring break travel is particularly at risk. I don’t want to overstate this. This isn’t like the effects of a major strike, where we have a big share of the U.S. system suddenly grounded. But this isn’t something American [Airlines] and Southwest could overcome just by creative fleet management.”

Schwieterman added, “The real variable is how long these planes will be out of the sky.”

READ MORE: US grounds Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 planes

The airlines said they expect little impact on flight operations.

Southwest Airlines said its 34 Max 8 aircraft account for less than 5 percent of daily flights.

Chicago-based United Airlines flies 14 planes covered by the order but doesn’t use them at O’Hare Airport.

“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,” United said in a statement posted on Twitter.

American Airlines has 24 Boeing planes affected by the order. “Our teams will make every effort to rebook customers as quickly as possible, and we apologize for any inconvenience,” the airline said.

Schwieterman said he hoped there might be an option for the grounding to be done in a “phased approach,” over a period of weeks, for example.

“The big problem is we don’t yet know what’s causing the safety risk,” he said. “We have theories, but things are still foggy.”

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