Every airline crash is tragic, but the loss of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max on Sunday was more than that. It raised questions about the safety of an entire type of aircraft and suggested that a whole a swath of aviation might not be nearly as safe as we’d assumed.
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Addis Ababa and went into a steep dive shortly thereafter, killing everyone aboard on high-speed impact. The circumstances were eerily similar to those under which a Lion Air 737 Max crashed in Indonesia five months ago. It’s still too soon to say if the same factors were at play in both accidents, but the coincidences were spooky for some. By Tuesday, Australia, China, Indonesia, Singapore, and the U.K. had grounded all aircraft of that type, as had 25 individual airlines.
Here in the U.S., meanwhile, the three U.S. carriers that fly the 737 Max continued to stand by the plane. After the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it would require “design changes” by April, Boeing said that it would be updating its software and training guidelines. In the meantime, both the FAA and Boeing said the 737 Max remained safe to fly. So who had it right? If your next airline reservation shows you booked on a 737 Max, should you roll with it or rebook?
First, the strictly rational answer: statistically, the 737 Max still has a decent track record for safety. With 350 in service since the type was introduced in 2017, and each of those flying multiple trips per day, the percentage of the planes that have come to grief is quite small. With the investigation into last year’s Lion Air crash still underway, and the Ethiopian crash still so fresh that we know next to nothing about the cause, it’s way too early to conclude that anything’s wrong with the 737 Max.
To be sure, there may be a problem with the plane. A preliminary report into the Lion Air crash suggests that a new autopilot system called MCAS can, under rare circumstances, put the plane into an unprompted steep dive. Even so, that doesn’t mean that the plane is unsafe to fly. It’s a sure thing that every 737 Max pilot is now aware of the MCAS issue and will know how to disengage it if the plane starts to go nose-down.
Passengers don’t need to make every decision on a purely rational basis, however. The natural human aversion to being suspended by invisible forces miles above the earth is such that the traveling public wants flying to be as close to 100 percent safe as possible. If your anxiety is making you miserable, it’s perfectly fine to accept your emotional reality and plan accordingly.
If the majority of the public ends up feeling that way about the 737 Max, then Boeing has a big problem on its hands. A reputation of being unsafe is hard to shake. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 passenger jet earned the nickname “Death Contraption” and “Daily Crash” after a string of high-profile accidents soon after its introduction in 1971. A fault in the design of a cargo door was to blame for some of them, and the FAA temporarily grounded all DC-10s in 1979. Though in the long run the plane’s statistics weren’t particularly bad, the optics were not sustainable. Four years later, McDonnell Douglas pulled the plug.
If you’ve got an upcoming flight and are keen to avoid the 737 Max, check your reservation to see what type of plane you’ll be on, or run your flight number through a site such as seatguru.com. In the U.S., Southwest has the largest fleet, with 34 737 MAXs, while American has 22 and United has 14.
If you do decide to rebook, be prepared to take a hit: U.S. carriers currently aren’t waiving change fees over passengers’ 737 Max anxieties.
The issue may become moot, however. While the FAA has said it’s in wait-and-see mode until the crash investigations progress further, political pressure may force its hand. On Sunday, Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote to the agency asking it to temporarily ground all 737 Maxes in service with U.S. carriers, saying, “Continuing to fly an airplane that has been involved in two fatal crashes within just six months presents an unnecessary, potentially life-threatening risk to the traveling public.”