Recent 737 Crashes
On Sunday, March 10, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashed in Ethiopa. Tragically, all 157 people on board were killed. Crashes of modern aircraft are exceptionally rare. So it’s given many operators pause that this is the second crash of a 737 MAX 8 aircraft in the span of roughly five months. The first such crash occurred in Indonesia late in 2018.
In part because the 737 MAX 8 is a brand new aircraft, many nations and safety groups have looked at these two crashes with alarm. China, Ethiopa, the European Union and Indonesia, for example, have all grounded their 737 MAX 8 fleets. The United States, Canada, and some other countries are taking a weight and see approach—though pressure is rapidly escalating on U.S. carriers to ground their 737 MAX 8 fleets.
That said, the American carriers that operate this type of 737 aircraft are in constant communication with Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that the aircraft remain safe to fly.
What Caused These Two Crashes?
One of the reasons that many aviation authorities and regulators are waiting to ground the MAX 8 is because it’s not entirely clear what caused the most recent crash of the aircraft in Ethiopia. There are, after all, many possible causes for crashes of this type, from pilot error to bird strikes. Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder and the aircraft flight recorder (known as the “black box”) is expected to begin immediately.
Even still, it could be weeks or months before a cause is determined in the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8. The cause of the earlier crash, in Indonesia, however, is well known even though that investigation is also ongoing. During takeoff, an instrument called an Angle-of-Attack (AOA) sensor malfunctioned, sending faulty data to the aircraft’s autopilot system.
The autopilot proceeded to then change the angle of the aircraft, causing a stall and eventually the crash. In response to this, Boeing and the FAA both distributed instructions to all airlines flying the 737 MAX 8 to change procedures and update software, ensuring that the same error does not occur again.
While it’s far from certain that the crash is related to the same issue, they do share some similarities. Both crashes occurred during takeoff, for example. So it’s easy to see why this second crash would be disconcerting to airlines, travelers, and safety regulators alike.
Why Haven’t All 737 MAX 8 Aircraft Been Grounded?
It’s important to note that the Boeing 737 is the most common aircraft in the world and maintains a stellar safety record. The 737 MAX 8 is a relatively recent version of the more common 737 airframe. The MAX 8 boasts several significant improvements over older versions of the 737, but the most important are its improved fuel efficiency and maximum weight.
It’s not unusual for relatively new aircraft to have a few technical issues to work out after it starts flying. These aircraft are so complex that issues are bound to crop up, no matter how rigorous the testing is (and the testing is indeed rigorous). Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft, for example, had to combat battery ignition and heat problems. During that incident, all 787 aircraft were grounded pending a solution.
So why haven’t all 737 MAX 8 aircraft been grounded now? In the United States, for example, the 737 MAX 8 has already been under increased scrutiny. The two airlines that fly 737 MAX 8 aircraft, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, have increased maintenance and inspections on all sensors. Aviation experts expect that the two airlines are also in constant communication with Boeing. At this point, most agencies and regulators insist that there simply is not enough evidence to warrant grounding the MAX 8 fleet, though that may change pending the current investigation. That position may be difficult to maintain, as several lawmakers and advocacy groups are exerting significant pressure to ground the aircraft pending an investigation.
Should You Be Worried If You’re Booked on a 737 MAX 8?
So should you be worried if you’re booked on a 737 MAX 8 aircraft? The answer is mixture of yes and no. There may be an increased risk associated with the MAX 8 aircraft, but there may not. Until the results of the investigation are complete, it’s difficult to draw conclusions one way or the other. That said, it’s easy to understand anyone who has second thoughts about flying on a MAX 8 without confirmation of its safety.
Flyers who want to check to see what aircraft they’ll be flying on have several options. If you’re already at the airport, you can take a peak at your plane and plug the registration number on the side into the FAA app. That will give you information about the make of the aircraft.
You can also check other aviation apps, such as FlightRadar24, or the website of the airline you’re flying on. Most airlines will probably work around your anxieties (though this isn’t necessarily guaranteed). It should also be noted that a few airlines fly the 737 MAX 9 aircraft, which has not had any of the same incidents as the MAX 8.
At this point in time, it’s worth remembering that an investigation is still underway. Once that investigation turns up more data, regulators and airlines alike will have a much better sense of how to proceed. So, too, then, will consumers.
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