Numerous countries and air carriers have now grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft following the deadly crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 over the weekend. But how concerned should you be?
On Sunday, the Boeing /zigman2/quotes/208579720/lastsale BA -10.27% plane plunged minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa’s airport, killing all 157 people aboard. Ethiopian and American safety regulators are on the scene, along with Boeing officials. Investigators recovered flight data and voice recorders.
Sunday’s crash came five months after a Lion Air flight using the same plane model crashed into the Java Sea soon after leaving a Jakarta Airport, leaving 189 people dead. Indonesian officials expect to have a final report on that crash by August or September 2019.
The chorus of concern over the 737 Max 8 was growing. On Wednesday, Canada banned Boeing’s Max 8 and 9 aircraft. European and Asian countries, including the U.K., France, Singapore and Australia, have also grounded the plane, along with more than 20 airlines across the globe.
But there was also a refrain from Boeing and some observers that there was no need for widespread worry. The Federal Aviation Administration has not halted the plane’s use, the company noted .
The FAA’s ‘wait and see’ attitude risks lives as well as the safety reputation of the U.S. aviation industry.
—Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org
That’s not calming everyone. Passengers said they wanted to change plans to avoid the plane and flight attendants called for the FAA to investigate Boeing.
The consumer advocacy organization FlyersRights.org called on the Federal Aviation Administration to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, arguing that the FAA should re-certify the plane as airworthy before it flies again.
“The FAA’s ‘wait and see’ attitude risks lives as well as the safety reputation of the U.S. aviation industry,” Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org and longtime member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee, said in a statement.
“Even assuming this design defect should not by itself take the aircraft out of service, the failure to warn airlines and pilots of the new feature, and the inadequacy of training requirements, necessitate an immediate temporary grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX 8,” he added.
Former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board Peter Goelz meanwhile told CNN that he wasn’t sure if he would let his family fly on a 737 Max aircraft. “The pressure is building, that the U.K. this morning made that call to say ‘put this plane down,’ and they were joined earlier by both Singapore and Australia,” he said. “Those are three very respected regulatory agencies.”
Other aviation experts warn against jumping to conclusions
Not everyone is sounding the alarm bells.
Following the Lion Air crash, observers and pilots suggested that new software may be to blame, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a directive requiring American air carriers to update their flight manuals accordingly so pilots would be made aware of the issue. Questions regarding the aircraft and its software were raised again following Sunday’s crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
Multiple safety experts contacted by MarketWatch emphasized that the investigation into the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft was still in its early stages, meaning that it is too soon to tell whether the airplane itself is to blame.
The technical data doesn’t quite support connecting these two accidents together yet.
—John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an independent aviation safety consultant
“The technical data doesn’t quite support connecting these two accidents together yet,” said John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an independent aviation safety consultant. “That may change, but as of last night they weren’t the same accident.”
Aircraft maintenance crews perform software updates frequently, as often as once a month, so it’s not likely that updated software is the culprit, Goglia said. At this point, Goglia said his questions rest with the carrier, specifically the flight’s crew and the training they had received.
While Ethiopian Airlines said the flight’s captain, 29-year-old Yared Getachew, had well over 5,000 hours of flight time, the first officer, Ahmed Nur Mohammod Nur, only had 200 hours. Moreover, Goglia said training in a computer simulator was equally if not more important than the amount of time actually spent in the air. “Hours don’t tell the whole story,” he said.
What pilots and flight attendants are saying
Captain Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines /zigman2/quotes/201071949/lastsale LUV -11.76% Pilots Association, the bargaining unit for more than 9,700 Southwest pilots, urged in a statement on Monday against jumping to conclusions too soon and said the organization backed Southwest’s decision to stick with the planes. Southwest has 34 of these planes in its fleet.
Weaks said in conversations with representatives for flight attendants, other pilot unions and others, “I relayed to them that SWAPA is extremely confident that our entire fleet, including the Max, is safe based on the facts, intelligence, data, and information we presently have. We fully support Southwest Airlines’ decision to continue flying the Max and the FAA’s findings to date.”
Weaks said he would address more news as it arose. “Let me also be very clear that SWAPA has not and will not hesitate to hold any organization or person accountable when the safety and or well-being of our passengers, our organization, our families, fellow Southwest employees or the traveling public are even remotely at risk,” he said.
Flight attendants with American Airlines and Southwest, however, have called for their carriers to ground the planes.
What consumers need to consider before changing travel plans
Despite the many airlines and countries that have grounded the 737 Max, most of the planes are still in use, meaning that consumers will need to decide whether they think flying on them is risky.
Consumer advocate and travel writer Christopher Elliott said he would not hesitate to fly on a 737 Max given that most pilots have continued to express comfort in flying these planes.
At the same time, he said that consumers should always approach air travel with caution. “Anytime you’re getting on a plane you should ask yourself is it a safe aircraft,” Elliott said.
The carrier versus the plane
Like Goglia, Elliott said he would have more concern about the carrier operating the flight than the plane itself, regardless of the model of plane. In particular, Elliott said he would hesitate to fly with an air carrier based in a country whose aviation oversight was not in compliance with the safety standards laid out by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Anytime you’re getting on a plane you should ask yourself is it a safe aircraft
—Chris Elliott, consumer advocate
Currently, the following countries’ airlines are banned from flying in the U.S. because the FAA has determined they don’t meet the ICAO standards: Bangladesh, Curacao, Ghana and Thailand. The European Union also maintains an extensive list of airlines that are banned from flying in its member states because of lax safety standards. (Neither Ethiopian Airlines nor Lion Air appear on that list.)
American Airlines /zigman2/quotes/209207041/lastsale AAL -10.34% and Southwest Airlines both confirmed to MarketWatch on Tuesday that they remain confident in the airworthiness of their 737 Max 8 planes.
A Southwest spokesman said the company is staying in “close contact with Boeing, the FAA, and other airlines to learn the cause of the accident. We operate 34 Max 8 aircraft in our fleet of more than 750 Boeing 737s. We remain confident in the safety and airworthiness of the Max 8. We don’t have any changes planned to our Max 8 operations.”
Southwest does not charge fees for passengers to change reservations, but passengers will have to pay any difference in flight cost. “We are not issuing refunds of non-refundable fares though we are working with customers individually who wish to rebook their flight to another aircraft type,” the spokesman said.
Norwegian Air /zigman2/quotes/209653676/delayed NWARF -3.66% said Monday it was sticking with the air crafts, but on Tuesday said it was grounding the planes for now in light of “recommendations by European aviation authorities.” The company’s acting Chief Operating Officer, Tomas Hesthammer, apologized for inconveniencing customers. “However, safety will always remain our top priority,” he said.
Boeing was up 16.4% year to date, and was down 6% Tuesday. That compares to the S&P /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX -3.37% , which was up 11.3% year-to-date, and Dow Jones Industrial Index /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA -4.06% , which was up 9.6% year-to-date.