When the 737 MAX operating Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed on takeoff from Addis Ababa last Sunday, the pressure immediately began to mount. Since this accident happened during the same phase of flight as the Lion Air accident last year, the dots were instantly connected… even if they shouldn’t necessarily have been. Calls to ground the airplane mounted from all sides except from those who actually fly the thing. Everyone caved quickly except for the US and Canada. Then yesterday, the rest of the dominoes fell. The 737 MAX is now grounded worldwide while they try to figure out IF there’s a problem.
While it’s hard to comment specifically on whether this is the right thing to do or not without knowing what the FAA knows right now, I’m still going to wade into this. I thought the FAA was right for not grounding the airplane with what information was said to be known previously. I have yet to see anything that would change my mind. But the FAA did say this yesterday about the administration’s decision to ground the airplanes:
The agency made this decision as a result of the data gathering process and new evidence collected at the site and analyzed today. This evidence, together with newly refined satellite data available to FAA this morning, led to this decision.
That’s quite the vague statement, so all I can do is hope that there actually is new safety information that warranted the grounding and this wasn’t just about political pressure and image management. As a cynic, I naturally assume the latter. But without further detail, I can’t comment on yesterday’s decision. All I can do is write about why the decision NOT to ground the airplane with previously-available information was the right thing to do despite all the intense pressure.
We know the issues that led to the Lion Air accident last year. Maintenance problems resulted in aircraft automation (that didn’t exist on previous 737 models, mind you) improperly nosing the aircraft down after departure. Pilots failing to properly respond to that movement doomed the airplane. Much has been made of Boeing failing to properly train pilots on that automation, and further training has been implemented. There is also a software rework in progress. We can go way into the weeds on whether the 737 MAX should have been required to get its own type certificate, but that’s a topic for another time… So yes, there’s plenty of blame here, but steps were in place to fix the immediate problems. A good, well-trained pilot should have been able to fly through that Lion Air situation, at least as we know it.
In fact, it sounds like the Ethiopian pilots were well-trained, and they had been given the additional training on the automation after the Lion Air crash. So did they just fail to heed their training? We have absolutely no idea. And that’s really the crux of the issue here. The only thing we know is that this airplane went down in a similar phase of flight, but we don’t know why. Reports from the ground (which are notoriously unreliable) have suggested that there was smoke and possibly debris trailing the airplane before it went down. That would certainly point to a different issue if it proves to be true. But WE DON’T KNOW, and we won’t really know until they get into the black boxes.
Once the black boxes are examined, something that I expect will happen very quickly considering the global pressure, we will know more. Maybe something will be found to suggest that the airplane needs to be grounded until a fault is fixed, but if we put the situation in context, it’s hard to come to that conclusion at this point.
25,000 Flights a Month and Climbing
Let’s get a little perspective here. It looks like there are roughly 25,000 flights a month being operated by MAX aircraft. That number climbs every day (uh, well, until this week) as more airplanes get delivered. So of the hundreds of thousands of flights that have operated, two have ended in an accident.
One of those accidents has been thoroughly reviewed and we know that any number of fixes could have saved the airplane. Had Lion Air done maintenance to fix the Angle of Attack sensors, had the pilots reacted properly to the nose-down response, or if the automation worked differently… that airplane would still be around and everyone would be safe. That’s not something that should require grounding an airplane, especially with quick fixes like supplemental training being available.
Now we have this Ethiopian accident. We do not know what happened, but the media jumped all over it and scared the hell out of everyone. I suppose this really is a testament to how safe air travel has become. I mean, between 1991 and 1994, USAir alone had four fatal accidents that killed 218 people. Should we have shut them down? (Actually, don’t answer that…)
The People I Trust Say The Airplane is Safe
Ultimately, this comes down to who you trust to make the right decision. Governments are more likely to listen to lobbyists and act how the polls tell them to act than they are to follow strict safety guidelines. There’s always a push and pull. (I hate that I have to say that, but just ask the NTSB how many recommendations of theirs have been ignored over the years.)
And of course, Boeing and the airlines in the US that operate the MAX have a huge profit motive. While I’d like to think they all would put safety before profit… it’s easy to see the conflicts in the decision-making process. That’s why I look at those who are risking their lives by operating the airplane, if in fact there is something wrong with it.
American’s pilots came out in defense of keeping the airplane flying. Southwest’s pilots said that with more than 41,000 flights on the MAX under their belts, they consider the airplane “safe based on the facts, intelligence, data, and information we presently have.” United’s pilots said they are “confident in our ability to fly the airplane.” If they were comfortable flying it, then I should be comfortable riding in it.
Many are looking back at history to find parallels here, to help better inform the decision. There is probably no better comparison than the grounding of the DC-10 after American 191 crashed on May 25, 1979 after one of the engines and pylons separated from the wing upon takeoff.
The iconic photo of the doomed aircraft in a steep left bank over the airport immediately before impact scared everyone who saw it. As with the 737 MAX today, people were nervous to fly the airplane, and airlines rushed to assuage travelers. But then on June 6, the FAA grounded the airplane. They had good reason. As the New York Times explained in an article from June 10 of that year:
The mechanics in California discovered that two-inch cracks —similar to flaws that may have been involved in the dropped engine that caused the May disaster — had developed in both planes’ pylons since the last inspection, only 100 flight hours earlier. That prompted the F.A.A. to an unprecedented early-morning directive revoking the DC-10’s design certification.
Here was concrete evidence that the airplane was unsafe. Cracks had developed during a very short period of time. It was completely rational to ground the airplane, even though it turned out it wasn’t caused by the aircraft design but rather a short-cut maintenance procedure that shouldn’t have been used.
In other words, these are very different circumstances, though there was plenty of criticism of the FAA back in 1979 as well. This isn’t an easy decision, but it’s important to make the best decision for everyone involved.
Remember that there were dozens of these airplanes flying in the US before the grounding, and they can’t be replaced overnight. American says it will be canceling about 85 flights a day. United and Southwest will likely see a lesser impact, but still, this leaves a lot of people stranded.
Would I get on a MAX today? Yes. Would I be nervous when we took off? Yes. But that’s just an internal reaction influenced more as a result of the media coverage and ensuing panic then actual facts.
Maybe the FAA learned something yesterday that will make a difference, or maybe they didn’t. But right now, it’s the uncertainty around what happened to Ethiopian 302 that is driving everyone insane. Once we know what happened there, hopefully cooler heads can prevail.