Is the Boeing 737 Max safe?

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It has long been true that per passenger mile, flying is by far and away the safest way to travel. This comforting reality owes a great deal to the close cooperation between national civil aviation authorities, together with the work of the International Air Transport Association and its 290 airline members.

It has almost always been the case that civil aviation authorities work together, agreeing risk assessments and policies to ensure the integrity and safety of air travel. Thus when there is a serious difference of opinion, the issue in question deserves closer attention.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has decided that despite two deadly crashes in just five months, it will not follow the majority of other national civil aviation authorities and ground Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft in American airspace.

Last October, a virtually brand-new 737 Max belonging to Lion Air crashed shortly after takeoff in Indonesia. Investigators discovered from the recovered “black boxes” that the pilots had appeared to be confused by an automated system that was supposed to stop the aircraft from stalling. This new feature is part of advanced software designed to keep a plane flying within its safety “envelope”. Given that most airliners are only under the pilots’ manual control during takeoff and landing and are flown the rest of the journey on automatic pilot, this extra safeguard would appear to make eminent sense. But it seems that there may be a problem either with the software itself or with the sensors whose data the onboard computer uses to make its decisions about the flight “envelope”. After the Lion Air crash investigation, Boeing was understood to be producing a software upgrade to overcome any problem but this has not yet been rolled out.

The circumstances of Sunday’s crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max bear many similarities, in that the aircraft had just taken off before it smashed into the ground. However, there are eyewitness reports that there was a trail of smoke, sparks and debris as the plane went into its fatal dive. The carrier says that the aircraft had undergone a rigorous maintenance check at the beginning of February. Both “black boxes” have been recovered from this latest tragedy and urgent analysis of what happened aboard the doomed aircraft should produce preliminary findings on what went so catastrophically wrong.

It is hard not to sympathize with those countries that have decided to err on the side of caution and have suspended the operation of 737 Max planes in their airspace. Equally, it is easy to understand why the US FAA has held off following suit. Two leading US carriers, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, are major operators of the aircraft. There is also just a hint of politics in all this. China, the first big country to ground the Boeing planes, is busy developing its own passenger aircraft manufacturing industry, while Europe is the home of Airbus, currently Boeing’s major international rival.

The FAA’s insistence that the 737 Max is safe to fly is a hostage to fortune. If another one of these aircraft goes down before the issue with it has been fully resolved, it will be a tragedy, not just for the passengers who would perish but also for one of the great names in the civil aviation industry.


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