Boeing 737 MAX: is it safe to fly?

Andreas Zeitler /

Ever since the second fatal crash of the Boeing 737 MAX occurred in Ethiopia in March 2019, the aircraft’s name has hardly left the headlines. While the current COVID-19 seemingly provided breathing room from the backlash, the aircraft is once again back in the spotlight following the green light to fly from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Naturally, with it, questions of whether the aircraft is actually safe to fly for passengers have followed.

But is the answer that straight-forward?

Rebuilding confidence

A straight-forward answer is hard to provide, but various stakeholders are trying to provide at least somewhat of an indication.

The FAA was one of the first authorities to begin the certification flight campaign of the Boeing 737 MAX in June 2020, as the agency began its process to un-ground the jet. Prior to the flights, Steve Dickson, the administrator of the authority, remarked during a hearing before the US Senate that the un-grounding process was driven by safety and was “not guided by a calendar or schedule.” Later, after flying on one of the test flights, Dickson reiterated that he “liked what he saw.” The administrator also added that the Boeing 737 MAX would be allowed to fly once again when he “was comfortable putting my family on it.”

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) executive director Patrick Ky has reiterated over the course of the crisis, that the EASA would independently look at some of the aircraft’s characteristics, including the cockpit alert systems. Nevertheless, a month before the European regulator issued a Proposed Airworthiness Directive (PAD), Ky stated that the 737 MAX was “safe, and the level of safety reached is high enough for us.”

The two, including many other authorities across the globe, worked for countless hours to ensure that the aircraft is safe to fly once it eventually returns to service. The house of cards that is the aviation industry is built on the foundation of safety. If passengers are shying away from flying due to safety concerns, the foundation and, with it, the whole house of cards collapses.

Airline confidence

American Airlines (A1G) (AAL), slated to become the first United States-based carrier to fly the 737 MAX, has begun a flight campaign with a goal to increase not only passenger but also employee confidence in the aircraft type. On the first flight that American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) conducted, media, employees and union leaders were invited to hop on board and fly on it.

“I’m very comfortable. I’m comfortable with the changes that have occurred,” stated Peter Gamble, the captain of the flight, when he was asked by CBS whether he was comfortable flying the Boeing 737 MAX. 

American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) is scheduled to release the type back into service on December 29, 2020. The first flight is scheduled to be operated between its Miami International Airport (MIA) and New York-LaGuardia Airport (LGA) hubs.

Southwest Airlines (LUV), the airline which currently has the largest number of Boeing 737 MAX delivered and undelivered, yet built aircraft, also has reiterated its support for the aircraft. In an open letter, the airline’s chief executive officer (CEO) Gary Kelly commented that “there is nothing more sacred to me than the Safety of our Customers and Employees.”

“If we had a cause for doubt of the Safety of our fleet—or any subset of it—simply put, the planes would not fly,” Kelly added.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s GOL Linhas Aereas CEO Paulo Kakinoff observed that the airline was “confident that it is one of the safest and most efficient aircraft in the world.” GOL is the first airline to fly the MAX. The first flight took place on December 9. 2020. Announcing its first flight with the aircraft a day prior, GOL Linhas Aereas once again reiterated the fact that it’s “first priority is always the safety of our customers,” at the time stated the Vice President of Operations at the airline Celso Ferrer.

Historic data?

They say history is the best teacher, but what kind of lessons can be taken from the Boeing 737 MAX historical data?

Throughout its short service before the grounding, there had been 17 events related to the aircraft, according to Aviation Safety Network (ASN). The Lion Air flight JT610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 are also on the list and should never be forgotten, as a combined total of 346 people died in the two fatal accidents. Other incidents include bird strikes, collisions on the ground and several engine hiccups. For example, the aircraft type suffered five bird strikes, a normal incident that can occur anywhere, between March 2018 and March 2019. On four other occasions, the aircraft was hit by various ground equipment at airports, including a tornado blowing over a bus to Corendon Airlines Boeing 737 MAX right-hand engine cowl in January 2019.

On another occasion, a Norwegian MAX was cleared to land despite there being an aircraft on the runway at Helsinki Airport (HEL), while, an Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing narrow-body suffered vibrations on the left-hand engine and conducted an emergency landing in Tucuman, Argentina, in December 2018. One Air Canada (ADH2) 737 MAX suffered severe turbulence on January 12, 2019. Sixteen days later, another aircraft of the type and of the same airline was forced to declare a MAYDAY call, as the right-hand engine oil quantity neared zero. On one WestJet flight in December 2018, the crew received a STAB OUT OF TRIM error and declared a PAN PAN, landing without any problems.

Following the groundings, in-mid March 2019, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX suffered an in-flight shutdown as it was en route to Victorville Southern California Logistics Airport (VCV) for storage.

The Airbus A320neo, which spawned the 737 MAX, has had over 50 various occurrences from 2017 until November 2020.  The aircraft first flew commercially with Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) in 2016. Of course, the major difference between the two are the two fatal accidents, which will stain not only the 737 MAX but also Boeing’s historical records.

Lessons from Long Beach

Another historical lesson that could be learned is the story of McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and the manufacturer itself. The aircraft was grounded after the widely televised shot of an American Airlines DC-10 swinging left after its left-hand engine ripped off, damaging hydraulic lines and the wing itself. The tri-jet already had quite the reputation before the crash, as it had severe issues with its cargo door. Nevertheless, the aircraft continued flying after the groundings. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) flight 191 crash was a result of incorrect maintenance procedures, combined with “the vulnerability of the design of the pylon attach points,” and “deficiencies in FAA surveillance and reporting systems, which failed to detect and prevent the use of improper maintenance procedures.”

However, commercially the DC-10 did not recover. Whether it would be the reputation or simple economics of a tri-jet versus a twin-jet, as its upgraded derivative, the MD-11, later showcased with a fairly lackluster career, the DC-10 was pushed to the sidelines. Despite all that, the legacy of McDonnell Douglas has lasted even after the company merged with Boeing in 1997.

“McDonnell Douglas bought Boeing with Boeing’s money,” a joke went around Seattle, according to a Fortune article from October 2000. For example, the former MD President and CEO Harry Stonecipher became the President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Boeing following the merger and spent two years as a President and the CEO at the manufacturer between 2003 and 2005.

Boeing’s culture was questioned following the two fatal accidents. A culture that McDonnell Douglas was famous for. After all, there were many derivatives that MD developed over the years, including the aforementioned tri-jets and the DC-9 derivatives, including the MD-80 and its update, the MD-90 family. The MAX was also a derivative of the 737 family of aircraft, that first sprung up back in February 1968 bearing Lufthansa’s (LHAB) (LHA) colors.

“On behalf of the families of the victims of both crashes, as well as anyone who steps on a plane expecting to arrive at their destination safely, we are making this report public to put a spotlight not only on the broken safety culture at Boeing but also the gaps in the regulatory system at the FAA that allowed this fatally-flawed plane into service,” commented chairman of the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio, as the committee released a report titled “The Design, Development & Certification of the Boeing 737 MAX” on September 16, 2020. Much like after the DC-10 crash, the FAA’s role was once again questioned, pinpointing to the agency’s shortfalls to prevent these kind of accidents.

Scrutiny of the 737 MAX

While the FAA felt confident in releasing the aircraft back into service, some are not that confident in the 737 MAX. FlyersRights, a non-profit organization aimed at improving passengers’ rights, filed an appeal with the US Court of Appeals.

“They [FlyersRights – ed. note] are concerned for their safety because of significant deficiencies in, and lack of transparency of the basis for, the FAA’s findings on which the two [un-grounding – ed. note] Orders are based,” read the appeal, filed on December 4, 2020.

Social media users have shared their fair share of concerns as well. “I usually don’t pay attention to the plane type while booking a flight. I will be paying close attention from now on. If I see Boeing 737 MAX I will cancel my flight and find another airline or model. I don’t trust it,” commented one LinkedIn user on a post announcing the un-grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX. 

“I flew on a MAX once a week prior to the groundings. Now, I’m going to avoid this plane for at least a few years before I take a risk. I don’t care how cheap the flight is, no point if you don’t arrive,” added another user.

There are good reasons why people are hesitant to get on an aircraft, released freshly into service in the 21st century that eventually claimed the lives of over 300 people. Will the 737 MAX be safe once it eventually returns to service sometime in December 2020? The answer, more likely not than not, will be yes. The thousands of hours spent by stakeholders of the industry to scrutinize the jet needs to result in a safer environment in the air – if not, then the industry has failed itself. Is the anger towards Boeing justified? Absolutely. The 346 number includes real people and real families that were torn apart by the two accidents.

“A horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA,” described the two fatal accidents US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s report. “Critically, our report gives Congress a roadmap on the steps we must take to reinforce aviation safety and regulatory transparency, increase Federal oversight, and improve corporate accountability to help ensure the story of the Boeing 737 MAX is never, ever repeated,” concluded DeFazio.


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