OPINION: Passengers scheduled on MAX forced into impossible decision

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Following the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 after takeoff from Addis Ababa this weekend, as an aviation journalist who writes regularly about safety, the answer one is always supposed to be able to give when asked if I trust the regulatory experts and would board a Boeing 737 MAX is an unqualified “yes”.

But I could not give that unqualified “yes” if asked whether I would happily fly on a 737 MAX yesterday, and even less so today with a growing number of jurisdictions expressing concerns by grounding the aircraft while ET302 is investigated.

Civil aviation authorities in Europe, the UK, Australia and Singapore have issued bans on the 737 MAX, and the numbers of airlines and jurisdictions refusing to allow the aircraft to be flown continue to grow. It remains unclear precisely what the regulators and airlines are looking to assess. Reading between some lines, it’s possible to speculate that, with the ET302 black boxes now found, they are looking for either similarities or differences to the JT610 crash five months ago. Boeing’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software, the way it works, and how (or even whether) pilots have been trained to use it, will be under particular scrutiny.

“The UK Civil Aviation Authority has been closely monitoring the situation,” said a spokesperson. “As we do not currently have sufficient information from the flight data recorder we have, as a precautionary measure, issued instructions to stop any commercial passenger flights from any operator arriving, departing or overflying UK airspace.”

EASA has suspended all 737 MAX operations, saying in a statement: “As a precautionary measure, EASA has published today an Airworthiness Directive, effective as of 19:00 UTC, suspending all flight operations of all Boeing Model 737-8 MAX and 737-9 MAX aeroplanes in Europe. In addition EASA has published a Safety Directive, effective as of 19:00 UTC, suspending all commercial flights performed by third-country operators into, within or out of the EU of the above mentioned models.”

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In suspending MAX operations, Australia’s CASA said: “This is a temporary suspension while we wait for more information to review the safety risks of continued operations of the Boeing 737 MAX to and from Australia,” CEO and Director of Aviation Safety, Shane Carmody, explained. “CASA regrets any inconvenience to passengers but believes it is important to always put safety first.”

In the United States, airlines continued to fly the aircraft – and have expressed confidence in the type – but the Association of Professional Flight Attendants representing American Airlines cabin crew confirmed to its members that they are not required to fly on the aircraft if they have safety concerns: “I contacted management again this morning with safety concerns of our Union and members flying this aircraft. Their current response is they will follow the normal fear of flying procedures. It is important for you to know that if you feel it is unsafe to work the 737 MAX, you will not be forced to fly it,” said APFA National President Lori Bassani in a statement. “You must contact crew schedule and your flight service manager who will remove you with a Personal Off (PO). While I have requested that the PO be non-chargeable, details must still be worked out. You may make up the flying via the regular methods available.”

Any matter of aviation safety is a dread risk, the ultra-low probability, ultra-high impact events for which airline crashes are often used as the perfect example. Humans are notoriously poor at assessing dread risks, because the impact outweighs the likelihood in our minds, especially when we are not able to control the likelihood.

That’s part of why fear of flying is common, yet fear of driving is much less so, despite the hugely greater likelihood and equally lethal impact potential of road traffic accidents. Even this journalist who could not give an unqualified “yes” to the 737 MAX would have few qualms about driving to the airport, objectively a more dangerous activity. But the fact is that travelers are worried about flying on the MAX, and to dismiss those worries as irrational misses the point.

Having flown on the MAX, would I knowingly do so again right now? Image: John Walton

The shrinking number of airlines who are still flying the MAX refuse to allow passengers to opt out without paying significant change fee penalties. The aircraft is perfectly safe, argue those airlines, and they are awaiting regulators’ directions. But it cannot be both acceptable for flight attendants not to be penalized for avoiding the MAX and for passengers to be penalized for doing so.

It is easy for those within the industry to issue the standard line — with or without a tinge of derision about the great unwashed panicking over nothing — about waiting for the experts before jumping to conclusions. It is especially easy to do so from behind a keyboard rather than staring at the door of an aircraft that multiple regulators have grounded.

Regulators are experts, and while there are of course geopolitical questions at play in certain regulator geographies, with the motives of China and Indonesia in grounding fleets possible to ascribe at least partly to wider contexts, it is hard to suggest that multiple uncoordinated regulators in the UK, Australia, Singapore and elsewhere have much to gain from grounding the MAX, let alone the growing numbers of airlines who have done so.

From my perspective as a journalist who deals regularly with certification and regulators on safety issues, I have professional concerns about the level of regulation in a number of areas: from seat testing and passenger safety to emergency egress certification, the levels of real-world vs computer testing required, the amount of read-across that is permitted when certifying derivative models of airframes, the amount of self-certification that is allowed, and so on. Many of these concerns have been raised here by Runway Girl Network journalists, myself included.

It would seem illogical and inconsistent if, having concerns about some aspects of the job safety regulators are doing, I did not apply that to other areas. Yet it’s equally illogical and inconsistent that I was driving and being driven in the Lazio region around Rome at speed last weekend, let alone crossing the road in that city, both activities that are much more likely to result in fatal injuries than getting on a 737 MAX.

That combination of illogical and inconsistent approach is precisely why we need to wait for the experts to collect, analyze and report on the data: because we humans are bad at doing so.

But the crux of the matter is this: are the concerns about the airworthiness of the 737 MAX sufficient to ground the aircraft while we await answers or not?

The FAA, and most North American operators say no. A substantial part of the rest of the world says yes. That leaves travelers making an incredibly hard decision on whether or not to fly it, and in the age of passengers being increasingly mobile, social and vocal, it seems short-sighted for the diminishing numbers of airlines still operating the 737 MAX to put them there.

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2 Comments

  1. Howard Miller

    An excellent column!

    As the trusted airline expert within my family and close friends, my text messages since Sunday have been filled with questions about the 737 MAX, including a family member who does not want her teenage son to fly that aircraft for an upcoming flight (he’s on an Airbus A319 now), as well as a very serious road warrior who wasn’t sure if his flight later this week is scheduled to be aboard the -8 MAX (it’s an -800, so he was relieved).

    Yes, by all accounts and proven statistical data one is far likelier to perish in an automobile accident driving to/from the airport than as a result of their flight crashing; and overall automobile accidents far and away has seen more people killed more in a single year than has happened in the entire history of commercial flying combined.

    However, this does NOT diminish the fact that until more is known, and definitive causes AND tested/proven remedies to whatever explains the two (2) recent crashes shortly after take-off of brand new Boeing 737-8 MAXes, consumers/fare paying passengers should have the right to change their flights free from penalties and punishments even if statistics suggest the likelihood of another incident in the near future is highly improbable – or that statistics in a few months will surely reveal that a great many people perished in automobile accidents on their way to/from the airport for flights that were scheduled aboard 737 MAX aircraft.

    Firstly, the fact remains that people are PAYING for a product that they now have a legitimate reason to believe is not just inferior, but yet still now has a demonstrated much higher mortality rate than other aircraft they, or their loved ones, can otherwise fly if NOT forced to choose between paying a $200 (or more for international itineraries) for peace of mind – or biting their fingernails and sucking up all of the additional stress, fear and anxiety that flying what they have a legitimate reason to believe is an aircraft whose safety and reliability is now in question.

    If, in their infinite wisdom, the FAA, Boeing, and some airlines (especially American and United) believe flyers’ fears are irrational and unfounded despite the grounding of the 737 MAX by governments and many airlines around the world (at last count now comprising nearly half of the total worldwide in service fleet), then the LEAST these two (2) airlines could do is allow anxious flyers to change their itineraries once fee free, penalty free, punishment free, and WITHOUT ANY FARE ADD-COLLECTS as long as seats remain available for alternate flights and/or routings using connections at any of American’s or United’s many (fortress) hubs.

    Sheesh.

    Is it THAT hard for these two (2) airlines to even pretend that they actually care about anything more than how much they can rip-off their fare paying passengers?

    Oh, and by the way, let’s NOT forget that even before questions emerged about the safety of the Boeing 737-8 MAX, the CEO of American Airlines, Doug Parker, only flew this model plane ONCE since the plane entered service in 2017 – and that was ONLY after many influential bloggers were relentless in their criticism of him for outfitting the “Oasis” interiors of the plane so horribly, that his actions made clear that even he viewed the planes he ordered as unworthy for his own travel!

    Maybe if Dougie P spent the next few weeks and months flying 737-8 MAXes exclusively everywhere he (his family & others in the C-suite at AA) flies he and his airline might be able to legitimately claim others have no right to request a waiver from the otherwise punitive fare rules/fences regarding itinerary changes for most airfares.

    However, until THAT happens (and how many people really expect to see that?!?!), Dougie P, and Oscar M at United, too, would be well advised to let those who want to rebook their itineraries on aircraft NOT a 737 MAX to do just that.

    At least until more is known, anyway…

  2. The French must love it they now have the 2 black boxes of their competitors planes, they will make sure that the final result of the investigation will last as long as possible to keep the Max on the ground , then they will try to replace with the A-320. There is a strong link between the French gov’t and Airbus, should we trust them ………………

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