Here's Why Fliers Shouldn't Fear the Boeing 737 Max 8 After Two Crashes in Six Months

The deadly crashes have travelers scared to fly Boeing's best-seller. They shouldn't be.

boeing 737 max 8 crash ethiopian airlines
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The second deadly crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft in less than six months has prompted airlines and aviation authorities around the world to ground the planes as the investigation unfolds. Meanwhile, big-name domestic carriers like American Airlines and Southwest continue to fly the latest version of the world's best-selling passenger jet and insist its safe to do so, unsettling fliers who worry the plane is fatally flawed.

In response to the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which killed 157 people on Sunday in the east African nation, at least 19 airlines have temporarily grounded their 737 Max 8s, a full third of the worldwide fleet of around 350 planes. In the U.S., anxious Max 8 fliers are begging the above carriers to change their flights to a different aircraft. But the truth is there's nothing to fear about Boeing's new plane—at least, nothing outside the ordinary risks of flying.

On Sunday morning, under clear skies and calm conditions, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Addis Ababa, carrying 157 people from over 35 countries on what should have been a routine flight to Kenya. Instead, the recently-delivered Boeing 737 Max 8 struggled to gain altitude and slammed into the ground six minutes later. Early reports have focused on troubling similarities to the crash of Lion Air Flight 610, a Boeing 737 Max 8 that nosedived into the Java Sea just after takeoff in October 2018.

Both the data and cockpit voice recorders from Flight 302 have since been recovered, though as with any complex air disaster, it will take a complete analysis to pinpoint the exact cause of the accident. The Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, Boeing, Ethiopian Airlines, and the government of Ethiopia are all investigating.

Though the Lion Air investigation is also still ongoing, it's zeroed in on whether the 737 Max 8's new anti-stall system was malfunctioning, along with whether the pilots had been properly trained by Lion Air or Boeing on how to respond to such a situation. The New York Times has an excellent primer; essentially, Boeing had two goals in developing the 737 Max 8, both of which may have contributed to the disaster.

The first was better fuel efficiency, accomplished by adding larger, more advanced engines mounted slightly ahead of where the old units rested. Doing so altered the plane's handling enough to make it more susceptible to pitching upwards and possibly stalling "during high-banked, tight-turn maneuvers," the kind planes often perform when climbing out of an urban airport.

To counter this, Boeing added anti-stall software to the plane's computers called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. It's designed to automatically push the nose down under certain conditions using the rear horizontal stabilizers and data received from the angle of attack sensor at the front of the plane.

However, that change ran headlong into Boeing's second goal: Making the 737 Max 8 identical to its predecessor from the pilot's perspective. Doing so meant current pilots wouldn't have to go through simulator training, making it cheaper for airlines to upgrade to the new plane. Pilots did receive updates on a few key changes to the 737 Max 8, though MCAS wasn't included, nor was the possibility that the system could incorrectly force the plane into a dive based on faulty data.

Boeing initially defended its decision not to alert pilots of the system's existence by pointing out that the 737's longstanding emergency checklist should guide the crew toward a safe outcome regardless of cause. Whether you think it's wrong to blame the deceased, there is some truth to that. Overriding MCAS requires the flight crew to press two switches on the center stack, extend a small handle on a turnable wheel near their knees, and crank it to manually adjust the stabilizers—the same procedure used to fix inflight stabilizer issues on older 737s.

Indeed, on the doomed Lion Air plane's second-to-last flight, a different pilot and co-pilot did exactly that to counter a nearly-identical problem with the aircraft pitching down, possibly saving the plane despite being unaware of MCAS's possible role. Following the Lion Air crash, Boeing put out a safety bulletin to alert pilots of the risk and proper response in a tacit admission of at least responsibility. The company is also working on a software update to prevent MCAS from incorrectly intervening in the future. 

Less than six months later, it looks like that wasn't enough. The aircraft model, short flight, erratic vertical climb, and reported distress call from the captain of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 all line up with the Lion Air disaster. But the investigation is still in its infancy; eyewitnesses also claim the plane was emitting smoke, debris, and a strange noise in the minutes before it plummeted to the ground, raising the possibility that a completely different problem was responsible.

Whether it was an MCAS malfunction or another maintenance-related part failure that took out Flight 302, the chance of it happening again is vanishingly small, especially at a domestic carrier like American Airlines, United, or Southwest. You can bet every single airline and Boeing 737 Max 8 pilot in the world is aware of the Lion Air crash, its potential cause, and how to prevent it. MCAS is no longer a mystery. And while two crashes in six months is certainly unusual and troubling, especially for a newer plane, the 737 Max 8 has been in service around the world since 2016 with no reported issues outside these incidents. Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 was just one of about 8,500 per week currently flown by the Max 8.

Southwest Airlines, which has 34 Boeing 737 Max 8s in its fleet and another 200-plus on order, said it's "confident" in its planes and training standards, adding that it's completed around 31,000 uneventful flights with the 737 Max 8.Likewise, American Airlines said it has "full confidence in the aircraft." Neither are reportedly allowing people to switch to a different flight as a result of the latest crash. Unfortunately, airlines aren't required to accommodate these requests; logistically, it's often impossible.

Slightly more telling is the response from airline employee groups, whose job it is to advocate for the safety of their members. USA Today reports a major American Airlines flight attendant union told its members they would not be forced to fly on a 737 Max 8 if they were concerned but stopped short of a call for grounding. Other pilot and flight attendant unions raised questions about the plane's certification process, but likewise did not request that the Max 8 be taken out of service.

Meanwhile, the FAA affirmed the plane's "continued airworthiness" on Monday, though the agency is also requiring updates to the design and control of the aircraft's automated systems. Such statements are not issued lightly. Consider this—it's been over a decade since the last major domestic plane crash in America. Carriers want nothing more than to avoid breaking that streak, even if they're driven more by money than a purely moral cause.

The FAA's inaction means the decision to keep flying rests with the airlines and other countries. Bottom line, the conditions and regulations under which American carriers operate have made it impossible for a bad MCAS reading to doom a flight in the U.S., and next-to-impossible for a maintenance problem on a brand-new aircraft to do so. The one caveat is that's not true everywhere in the world. And of course, the overall airworthiness of the Boeing 737 Max 8 is of no comfort to those who lost loved ones in either crash.

You assume a set amount of built-in risk as a passenger on a modern jet airplane. But depending on where you're taking off from, that level has shrunk dramatically in the last two decades as technology and safety standards rapidly improved. Two crashes in six months does warrant some concern. But unless the investigation into Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 reveals some sort of systemic defect that millions of flight hours have yet to uncover, the Boeing 737 Max 8 is pretty much as safe as they come.