If you can’t imagine flying again on the Boeing model that was grounded following two deadly crashes that killed all on board in a span of five months, you’re not alone. A poll by SmarterTravel’s sister site Airfarewatchdog recently found that 73 percent of respondents would not want to travel on the model. Our own survey of a smaller group found more of the same. So where do travelers go from here?
In the wake the Ethiopian Airlines crash, are you personally concerned about flying on a Boeing 737 MAX 8?
— airfarewatchdog (@airfarewatchdog) March 13, 2019
Experts say that when the 737 MAX models are cleared to fly again, likely after a software fix and new pilot trainings, they will be considered as safe as any other modern airplane. That’s the key take-away for air travelers.
Before the plane flies again, however, some combination of Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Transportation Board, and France’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA) will have determined whatever combination of mechanical, software, documentation, regulatory, and pilot training fixes is necessary to prevent any recurrence of whatever brought down Lion Air and Ethiopian. And since the initial October crash of the Lion Air 737 MAX 8 is still under investigation, it’s safe to assume that reintroducing the model could take some significant time.
That’s how the modern air safety system works. It’s designed to make sure that except for outright pilot error, all serious crashes are one-off occurrences. Investigators sort through the evidence, determine the cause(s), and make changes necessary to prevent a recurrence. At this writing, the exact causes of both crashes have yet to be officially identified—it’s not yet even clear how closely related both crashes were. And from what is known so far, the crashes were probably not due to a single failure. Instead, both probably resulted from an unanticipated convergence of deficiencies—none major enough to cause a crash alone but which, in combination, were deadly. Regardless, investigators will figure it out, and the 737 MAX will not fly again until fixes are in place. Boeing is currently saying it will have a fix in a few weeks. Maybe, but regardless of how long it takes, the plane will be fixed before it flies.
Did the FAA Let Boeing Put Profit Over Safety?
Consequences of the 737 MAX story will continue long after the planes return to the air. Among the key story lines are these concerns about Boeing, the FAA, and airlines in the U.S., which were some of the last to ground the model.
Boeing’s Complicity: Did Boeing understate the extent to which the MAX versions were completely new planes, not just minor tweaks to a proven 50-year-old design, for the purpose of profit? Did it gloss over important design changes to airlines and the FAA as inconsequential? Was the plane not fully tested before it entered airline service? Did Boeing err in failing to ground the planes after the first crash? Was it involved in a cover-up of known pre-crash warnings? Should executive heads roll? Will it lose more business to its only other primary competitor, Airbus?
FAA Inadequacy: Did the FAA exercise adequate surveillance of the plane’s development and certification, or was it too chummy with Boeing? (Multiple reports have signaled that the agency let Boeing do its own safety checks.) Did it abdicate its safety authority in favor of the American manufacturer? Should the FAA have acted more quickly? And does it really have the staffing, budget, and regulatory authority to assure the safety of any highly complex new plane adequately?
Airlines’ Responsibility: Did the airlines rush the new planes into service prematurely? Did they train pilots in the new models adequately? Will some airlines stop buying and taking delivery of 737 MAX models, even if it means delaying replacement of older planes?
Those ongoing stories will generate a lot of ink and pixels. Accusations of blame—and lawsuits—will likely go on long after the 737 MAX models are safely back in service. And that’s understandable, as Boeing has a lot of tragedy to answer for.
Similar Cases, and the Takeaway
As a consumer, long-term, you’re probably rightly concerned about whether the current safety system is robust enough to prevent future deadly failures. After all, Boeing stood by the planes after the Lion Air crash, but the tragedy repeated itself.
Serious other crashes caused by a single, unanticipated, but catastrophic mechanical defect date back many decades to 40s-era models. The only similar plane model defect in recent memory is the lithium-ion aircraft battery fires on the Boeing 787 in 2017.
But the current situation is more complicated than the standard, one-off plane failures typical of rare crashes. The worst recent crashes were due to a combination of minor mechanical problems coupled with software that reacted dangerously to those problems and pilots that reacted improperly to software corrections. These are, indeed, serious challenges facing everyone involved.
So, yes, as a consumer, you’re fully justified in worrying about long-term problems. But expect to be told you shouldn’t worry too much about flying a 737 MAX after they’re cleared for takeoff.
And remember that fear of flying isn’t a reason you can be entitled to compensation under your travel insurance.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Fatal Lion Air Crash Raises Questions About New Plane Model
- How to Find Out If Grounded 737 MAX 8 Planes Will Affect You
- This Is the Safest Part of the Plane
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.