The world has learned more about the Boeing 737 MAX in the past couple of days than anyone likely ever expected, from the decision over its engines to the compensating programming that was determined to be necessary to prevent stalls.
And now that two aircraft have been lost in less than six months its natural to be very concerned about what this means for the aircraft program and for flying it as a passenger. There may be a very serious issue here, we’ll get indication of what happened to the Ethiopian Airlines aircraft soon as black boxes are examined.
Canada has grounded the Boeing 737 MAX, leaving the U.S. alone in the world in continuing to allow the aircraft to fly. It’s difficult to stand alone in the face of world pressure. It’s reasonable I think to believe that they’re doing the right thing, and reasonable to think that some other regulators may be doing right too.
In the Lion Air crash concerns were raised about the 737 MAX’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system pushing the plane’s nose down. Every 737 MAX pilot at this point knows about MCAS issues and how to disengage and fly manually, something that wasn’t done in the Lion Air incident and may not have occurred here (if indeed MCAS was at play).
The New York Times reported Chinese regulator comments yesterday that make a strong distinction between grounding the aircraft there (and I’d argue many other places) vs in the US,: they don’t trust their pilots to fly off auto pilot.
The Lion Air MAX wasn’t air worthy, didn’t have the ability to alert pilots that angle of attack sensors disagreed by 20 degrees (perhaps that shouldn’t be optional!). And we just don’t know enough yet about the Ethiopian crash to draw more than surface-level parallels.
Portraying the decision not to ground the aircraft, though, as kowtowing to Boeing (or to airlines operating the aircraft) as an economic one — profits over people — would be a mistake. Assume for a moment that despite tens of thousands of flights without incident operated by US airlines that there is a problem with the aircraft.
- Is flying the MAX safer than driving?
- Is it safer than taking connecting flights (two takeoffs and landings) to avoid the MAX?
There are real, safety-related, consequences to grounding an aircraft and decisions that passengers have to make as a result which may make them less safe. Grounding may turn out to be the right answer but it’s certainly not crazy to wait to see what the data from the Ethiopian Airlines flight reveals before making it.
At the same time a country like Australia banning the MAX when there are very few flights there? That seems like a low cost decision with far fewer safety-related tradeoffs.
I don’t have an issue with customers booking away from the aircraft. I find it absurd that American Airlines isn’t waiving change fees or difference in fare to rebook onto a non-MAX flight. Of course they refused to offer a travel waiver during the PSA meltdown in Charlotte last summer too wen thousands of flights were being cancelled and they didn’t initially have any fix at hand.
I’m grateful that the FAA’s initial decision not to ground the aircraft came before Boeing’s CEO called the President. I do generally trust the FAA, and the pilots operating these aircraft, to offer their best judgment here. Standing athwart regulators the world over who are taking the simple path (they’ll never get blamed for a car crash or incident on another aircraft type) isn’t easy. I just hope that new data would be what guides any shift in position.