It’s been an interesting week in the aviation world. When Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed this weekend, there were no survivors. Incidents like this always hit me in the gut. I travel for a living (and for fun). It’s horrible to think about the people involved in a tragedy such as this. As we move days past the crash, there are questions swirling everywhere. They all boil down to one root question. Is the Boeing 737 MAX safe to fly? It was a rambling question when I asked it last time. Now that virtually every country in the world has grounded the 737 MAX except for the United States, the question has changed a bit.
Why Isn’t the United States Grounding the 737 MAX?
There’s almost a fever pitch to ground the 737 MAX worldwide. With two separate plane crashes resulting in massive fatalities, where the initial information available is similar, the argument is that they were caused by the same thing. It’s understandable how that conclusion could be reached, given the gravity of the incidents. But, it’s important to note that there’s no information publicly available that shows these two accidents are due to the same factors.
In the wake of that information, countries and airlines started banning/grounding the 737 MAX. It started out in Asia, with countries like Indonesia and China. Earlier today, Canada added themselves to a list that should, at this point, include every airline with a MAX 8 other than American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.
Many folks are screaming that the FAA is being irresponsible by not grounding the FAA while we wait for more information. That’s a difficult spot if the FAA doesn’t possess any data that would indicate the two incidents are related. It’s likely that many of the countries and airlines who made the decision to ground the aircraft possess the same (or less) information than the FAA. Why did they make a different decision? Politics could definitely be a part of it. It’s just not a course of action that we can rule out at this point.
Some US 737 MAX 8 Aircraft Are Different
I was pinged by Barry G on Twitter this morning with a note that some of the US carriers may have additional safety features on their MAX 8 aircraft. I hadn’t heard that before, which lead me to do some digging. That research lead to a couple pieces of information. First, an article from Jon Ostrower last November. Jon’s a smart guy, his writing is to be respected in this space. Among the points Jon makes are a couple as it relates to Southwest and United installing additional safety features on their planes.
Jon notes that Southwest will install additional Angle of Attack (AOA) indicators to help pilots determine if they are receiving faulty data. This appears to be represented in the visual display pilots see in the cockpit.
The article goes on to note that American Airlines says they’ve had a similar feature installed on their primary flight displays since the 1990s on much of their 737 fleet.
This information seems to be backed up, in part, by an NPR interview with David Soucie, an ex-FAA flight accident inspector.
What About Canada?
I haven’t been able to find any data to suggest that airlines like Air Canada have these features installed on their 737 MAX 8 aircraft. Yet, Canada made the decision to ban all 737 MAX 8 aircraft from Canadian airspace. Seth Miller surmises on Twitter that Canada may have gotten some flight data from a partnership that would shed more light on the Ethiopian Airlines crash:
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) March 13, 2019
It’s important to note this is not black box data. At the time I’m writing this, I still don’t believe any government organization has analyzed that data. It’s believed the flight data recorders are headed to the UK for analysis, with some potential damage to the boxes. This adds to the intrigue of Canada making this decision days after the accident as opposed to right away.
The Final Two Pennies
Let’s be clear. I am not an FAA flight inspector nor an aviation expert. I’m trying to paint a picture here without offering too much in the way of opinion. There just aren’t any concrete answers at this moment. It’s unclear at the moment if FAA officials have analyzed the same data Canadian aviation officials did, which likely lead to them taking an extra step the US hasn’t. As someone else pointed out to me in a discussion, the data on AA and Southwest might explain why the US would allow those planes to continue operating in US airspace. It doesn’t answer the question of why they would let all MAX 8 aircraft operate in the US, if they believe the US carriers have made their versions safer than other airlines. That may point to Canadian MAX 8s having similar systems in place.
For now, we wait. And keep researching.
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