Asked about the Boeing 737 MAX during Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders meeting, Warren Buffett said that he “will never hesitate even for a second to fly on a 737 MAX” once it returns to service.
Buffett does not directly own shares in Boeing, however the company he leads owns significant stakes in several airlines:
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Southwest, American, and United all have 737 MAX aircraft in their fleets.
While the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines tragedies have similarities, faulty angle of attack readings, resulting in compensation by the aircraft’s MCAS system, compounded by mishandling by pilots (which wouldn’t be an issue but for the first two issues), the plane flies well in the absence of such faulty readings. Comparing data from multiple sensors can address this, limiting the automatic response to sensor readings can address this, and pilot training can address this.
There are separate issues that are going to need to be investigated and addressed — how design choices made it into final production, and how those choices were signed off on. That’s important on a forward-looking basis.
There appear to be plenty of screwups along the way here, for a variety of reasons, and a lot of oxes to gore too. It’s a tragic mistake that Angle of Attack disagree alerts weren’t standard and functioning on all 737 MAXs, but that error will be resolved so may not factor into any decision about whether to fly the plane in the future — even if there’s costly liability to Boeing for the oversight and even conscious decision not to act once the problem was uncovered.
In the immediate term the US appears to have given up its lead role in investigating and signing off on safety for the world. That’s marked departure. Other nations grounded the aircraft before the US did, and it appears that decisions to unground it will be made in conjunction with those agencies. Regulators are inherently conservative, and coordination of world regulators even more so.
Once the plane receives sign off from regulators around the world to return to the skies, airlines (and their insurers) are confident flying the aircraft, and pilots are comfortable in the cockpit the degree of assurance will be extremely high that the aircraft is safe.
In all likelihood Warren Buffett has fewer years left to jeopardize than I do with each decision to assumes a risk. However I think his judgment is right — no hesitation to fly the plane once it clears all of the hurdles to return to the skies.
You may have an opportunity to fly the MAX again sometime this summer. Will you let it take you where you’re going?