Founded or not, passengers and crew alike are perfectly justified in questioning whether Boeing’s latest generation single-aisle aircraft, the 737 MAX aircraft family, is safe to fly. After all, there have been two fatal accidents involving brand new 737 MAX 8 aircraft in the space of months – the latest involving an Ethiopian Airlines jet killed all 157 passengers and crew onboard.
Ethiopian authorities today said they had recovered the so-called ‘black box’ consisting of both the cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder just a day after the plane crashed into farmland a short time after takeoff from Addis Ababa. Along with eyewitnesses and other data sources, we already know a fair amount of what happened to Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302.
But it’s still far too early to connect the dots and definitively say what actually caused yesterday’s tragic crash. We can’t, for example, say that the cause of the Ethiopian Airlines crash was in any way related to the fatal Lion Air crash in October which also involved a brand new Boeing 737 MAX 8.
It’s therefore really difficult to conclude the aircraft is inherently unsafe – is grounding this model of aircraft a sensible precaution in the circumstances or a complete overreaction? Well, aviation officials in several countries clearly think they know enough (or perhaps not enough) to ground the 737 MAX 8.
The decision to ground the aircraft type was led by China but authorities in several other countries, including Indonesia, have followed suit. Some airlines, including South Africa’s Comair, have also taken it upon themselves to ground their 737 MAX aircraft despite aviation authorities where they are based issuing no such official guidance.
In contrast, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has decided not to issue any guidance, simply saying in an initial public statement that it would be “closely monitoring developments”. The agency has gone onto say that it was still collecting data and would be issuing a Continued Airworthiness Notification for 737 MAX operators.
— The FAA (@FAANews) March 11, 2019
The European Air Safety Authority (EASA) which is responsible for aviation regulatory matters across the continent also said it was “monitoring the investigation” and remained in contact with both Boeing and the FAA.
A number of U.S. airlines are currently operating the Boeing 737 MAX 8 (There are also MAX 9 and MAX 10 variants but the concern primarily focuses on the MAX 8). These include American Airlines with 26 of the aircraft type in service and Southwest Airlines who have had 34 of the planes delivered new since its introduction in 2017.
United Airlines also operate the 737MAX family aircraft, with 16 of the larger MAX 9 variant in its fleet.
“Crew and passengers are expressing concern about the 737 MAX 8 following a second crash, with similar characteristics to the Lion Air Flight 610 crash,” explains Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) who represent staffers at United Airlines amongst others.
While Nelson cautions against drawing a conclusion without all the facts, she also says steps must be taken to address the concerns of passengers and crew immediately. The union has formally called on the FAA to start an investigation into the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX.
“It is vitally important that U.S. airlines work with Boeing, the FAA, and the NTSB to address concerns and take steps to ensure confidence for the travelling public and working crews,” Nelson continues.
“If you feel it is unsafe to work the 737 Max, you will not be forced to fly it…”
Meanwhile, the union which represents crew at American Airlines, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), has written to AA chief executive Doug Paker to demand “critical safety concerns” surrounding the 737 MAX 8 is immediately addressed.
“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,” the union told its members today. Instead, flight attendants can be removed from any duty involving the 737 MAX without penalty.
American says it has “full confidence in the aircraft and [their] crew members, who are the best and most experienced in the industry.”
Several major unions, including the Transport Workers Union and Allied Pilots Association, are now working out how to respond – and how best to support their members who might not feel so comfortable working on the aircraft type.
In the wake of a serious aircraft accident, we’re often reminded not to speculate as to what caused the crash. But sometimes, like in this case, people have legitimate concerns – asking them to wait for a year or more just for a preliminary report might not cut it.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.