The Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed on Sunday, resulting the deaths of all 157 passengers, was the second crash of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in five months. Eighteen countries have since grounded the model and banned it from their airspaces. Though the FAA reassured Americans that the 737 MAX is safe to fly, Senators Mitt Romney and Elizabeth Warren called for the US to ground it. David Soucie, a former safety inspector with the FAA, told CNN, “I would watch for that airplane.” President Trump also weighed in, expressing his belief that “airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly.”
There are approximately 350 Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes in use across the world, including by American Airlines and Southwest. Many airlines allow customers to see which aircrafts they will be flying in, and SeatGuru.com can also help flyers find this information. If you find yourself with tickets aboard a 737 MAX, should you cancel your flight? We spoke with Gary Leff, an industry expert and owner of the air travel blog View From the Wing.
Is this something that people should be concerned about?
I think it’s always concerning to see any kind of an accident in commercial aviation. We do not know very much yet about what happened in the case of the Ethiopian Airlines flight to Nairobi that crashed. There are some apparent similarities between initial news accounts of that flight and the Lion Air flight from October, and really that is the basis on which some governments have made the determination, out of an abundance of caution, to ground that aircraft. There have been groundings of other aircrafts in the past. There have been clusters of incidents early in an aircraft’s life where they turned out to be completely safe. And there’s simply too much we do not know about the incident to really have any reason to think there is a problem at this point. But I mean yes, it is perfectly reasonable to be concerned.
Is there a smart way for consumers to react to this?
Personally, I would make the choice to fly on the aircraft, the same way that I have flown on it many times.
Can people identify whether their plane will be a 737 MAX 8?
There are a few things. The first is knowing who operates them. In the US, the MAX 8 is operated by Southwest and American. United operates the MAX 9. Because we don’t know what the issues are, I can’t speak to with certainty [whether] it does or does not incorporate the MAX 9. An airline will list what aircraft is flying a route at the time you book it, and they can change that. A MAX might be swapped out for a 737 800. It’s the same size aircraft. You could purposely book a flight not on the MAX and show up on the day of departure to find that the flight is the MAX. The airlines also, on their schedules, will show what plane it is. If you’re looking at a schedule for American or Southwest, the MAX is listed as 7M8. You can compare the seat map for a given aircraft, say on SeatGuru, and see what aircraft it corresponds too. Although American Airlines has been retrofitting their 737 800s to have the same interior [of the MAX].
Do you think that people should try to change their flights?
I suppose I guess the question is the relevant alternative. For somebody that can choose between that aircraft and another one, I can understand how they would feel more comfortable on that other aircraft. As I say, I don’t have a concern flying on it myself. If the alternative were to take a connecting flight, then exposing yourself to two flights versus just one on a different aircraft type, I mean there are different elements of risk involved. I think there’s a whole lot of complicated tradeoffs that people need to consider. You’ve got two takeoff and landings instead of one. The choice that went wrong is never the good choice, but you don’t know that at the time you’re making it…You make the best choices you can. The 737 MAX is very safe, unquestionably even statistically, compared to what air travel in the US used to be like, and people flew all the time.
Is there a known issue with the 737 MAX 8?
In the case of the Lion Air crash—there’s a lot going on and there’s not a final report yet—but we did learn early on that the software for the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, referred to as MCAS, was taking in readings that were causing the aircraft to push its nose down. Actions taken by the pilot were not the right ones to counteract that. Now, every 737 MAX pilot is aware of it, and how to deal with it, which isn’t a complicated matter. And that’s how airlines have become so incredibly safe. Any time something does happen, now, it’s either completely new or a best practice that’s been ignored.
Per President Trump’s tweet, do you think that this crash is a result of changing flight technology?
I think that aviation has become increasingly safe as it has become increasingly reliant on technology. So it certainly doesn’t seem to correspond with reliance on technology. And by the way, the technology on board Air Force One is unlike that of any commercial aircraft. In terms of, for instance, anti-missile technology, the ability to refuel in the air. There are huge technological investments in Air Force One that are at play, and yet we consider Air Force One to be one of the safest possible ways to travel.
Would you get in a plane that Albert Einstein was flying?
No, because he died in 1955. I like my pilots to be currently alive. I prefer not to take a Weekend at Bernie’s approach to the cockpit.
This interview has been edited and condensed.