The first thing I woke up to this morning was a Tweet that made my stomach drop.
Simply horrible news to wake up to this morning.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) March 10, 2019
I knew immediately what had happened. After hopping online, I learned the details of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX that crashed. Sadly, there were no survivors.
Before we get too deep into this post, I want to clarify two important points:
- I am not an aviation safety expert.
- I own Boeing stock, so I may be biased on the topic of their airplanes.
This second incident with the 737 MAX makes me think of the problems that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner had when it first took to the skies. The loss of life in the 737 MAX crashes means this isn’t some sort of direct comparison. It just reminds me of the nature with which the issue unfolded over months.
I was on one of the very first delivery flights for the 737 MAX. For sure, I have a ton of confidence in the plane. I’ve already flown it a few times and I’m sure I’ll fly it in the future. But, we’re at an interesting (and potentially scary) moment.
Ben wrote up his thoughts on the safety of the 737 MAX aircraft and did a really good job at balancing his personal thoughts with the information that we know.Some might wonder why I’m writing this post, because he already did a pretty darn good job of summarizing where we stand. For me, this blog is sometimes about me working my thoughts out through my writing. So, at this very early stage after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, I needed to write down some thoughts after a conversation with my wife. Because, I really couldn’t answer her question. Is the Boeing 737 MAX safe?
Lion Air 737 MAX Crash
One airplane crash doesn’t necessarily mean an airplane type is unsafe. When two aircraft of the same type crash within a few months of each other, the speculation gets ratcheted up quite a bit. Speculation is just that. The investigation into the fatal Lion Air 737 MAX crash from last fall is far from being concluded. There are some initial reports that the new technology Boeing added to the MAX may have played a role in the crash. However, it’s way too early to say definitively what the cause is (IMO).
Lion Air’s safety record is questionable. Ethiopian’s safety record seems better, though I’ll admit I haven’t followed them as closely. It’s hard to follow the aviation industry for any length of time and not come across a story about Lion Air’s safety record. When the Lion Air 737 MAX crashed, it was easier to believe it may have been a result of poor maintenance on the part of the airline. Not easy, mind you, since it was a brand new airplane. But, easier.
The 737 Is A Safe Plane
There have been more Boeing 737 aircraft produced (over 10,000 at current count) than any other commercial jet in history. Overall, the plane has had a very good safety record. It’s solid operational history is part of what has lead to so many orders over the decades. When the Lion Air crash happened, the FAA did not ground the new fleet type. As of this writing, they haven’t ordered the MAX to be grounded after the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The FAA is a very measured organization, not prone to rash decisions. Even so, it would be hard to blame them for a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. If true, there’s a rumor floating around right now that China may have ordered their airlines to stop flying the 737 MAX.
The impact to the Chinese domestic market today is big but not insurmountable. But the number of MAX on order for China is HUGE. Also, the regulator going beyond the certifying country (i.e. FAA) is also very much outside norms. #avgeek https://t.co/9IIyVEEqL6
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) March 10, 2019
It’s going to be very interesting to watch what happens in the days and weeks to come as it relates to the FAA, Boeing and the airlines who operate the 737 MAX.
Who Operates The Boeing 737 MAX?
According to Boeing’s website, 350 737 MAX aircraft have been delivered to almost 40 different airlines. I won’t list all of them, but here are a bunch of airlines operating it that you’ve probably heard of (and flown):
- Air Canada
- American Airlines
- Norwegian Air
- Southwest Airlines
- United Airlines
Southwest Airlines appears to operate the largest fleet of 737 MAX aircraft right now.
Should You Fly The 737 MAX?
There have been some rumors after the Ethiopian Airlines crash that some of these airlines are allowing customers to switch to other plane types for free if they currently have a flight booked on a 737 MAX. And, I’ve seen at least a handful of blog posts from my fellow travel bloggers urgently advising folks to avoid the MAX at all costs. Maybe my Boeing bias is at play here, but I think statements like that are at best uninformed and at worst irresponsible.
Both 737 MAX crashes have disturbing elements to them. What airplane crash doesn’t? The loss of life is hard to wrap our hands around. I share the same opinion Ben does. I really can’t blame anyone who would choose to avoid the Boeing 737 MAX. Assuming I had multiple worthwhile choices to get to my destination, I might even choose the non-MAX option at the moment. Heck, I was on one of the very first delivery flights. Flying is safer than driving, by far. But, amongst airlines, there are ones with better safety records than others. I’d choose Southwest Airlines over Allegiant in a heartbeat. Given the uncertainty of where we are right at this moment, I might choose a different aircraft. But, I also wouldn’t be scared to fly the MAX if it was the best option to get me to my destination. We’re still talking about very small chances that something could go wrong.
The Final Two Pennies
When I started writing this article, the reports of China grounding the MAX hadn’t surfaced yet, nor the decision by Cayman Airways to stop flying the MAX 8 for the moment (I’m guessing Cayman leases the airplane as they’re not listed as a direct customer for the 737 MAX on Boeing’s website). This is definitely an evolving situation. And yet, we’re likely many months away from final determinations of the cause of these crashes.
As someone who travels for a living, an airplane crash is something that can lead to uneasiness at home. When an incident happens, I always try to discuss it with my wife so she doesn’t hear it from someone else. I explain what I know about the incident, including some of the technical details. I’m not sure if that gives her comfort, but I want her to have as much information as possible. That’s the way I confront these situations, yours may be different. I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to avoid the 737 MAX, though I’m not 100% sure it’s warranted at the moment. Again, I see parallels to the 787 grounding 6 years ago. The folks tasked with evaluating the safety of airplanes do a great job protecting the flying public. I expect they’ll continue to make the right decisions to keep us safe, and inform us along the way.
I’ll be thinking of the people who lost a loved one on Ethiopian Airlines 302. It’s a sad day for the aviation world.