Regulators are risk-averse. There’s almost nothing for a regulator to gain by not banning something that could be dangerous that turns out not to be. However they’re going to face significant blame if something bad comes to pass and they did nothing.
So it’s not surprising to see country after country ground the Boeing 737 MAX in light of the tragic Ethiopian Airlines incident. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency has now grounded the MAX. However the FAA has not. Outside of Aeromexico North American airlines continue to stand by the aircraft.
We Know Too Little About What Happened to the Ethiopian Plane
We do not know yet what is at issue in the Ethiopian investigation. Even if the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system pushed the plane’s nose down as a result of faulty readings, every 737 MAX pilot is very much aware of this system and how to disable it, did they attempt to do so? If not, why not, and if they did what was the problem?
There have been two occurrences within 5 months of each other for a new aircraft and that’s concerning. It’s hardly unprecedented — for aircraft deemed reliable like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 787. Right now we’re dealing with fear of the unknown though of course Boeing 737 MAX aircraft remain statistically safer than driving and operate safely every day. Indeed they’re safer than aviation in the US used to be, when we flew every day.
Why Aren’t We Hearing More About United’s 737 MAX?
American and Southwest are getting the bulk of the attention since the occurrence aircraft were Boeing 737 MAX 8s and that’s the plane they operate. United flies the Boeing 737 MAX 9. Since we don’t actually know the probable cause of the Ethiopian incident, we don’t know if it’s something that would apply equally to the MAX 9.
How Do You Know If You’re Flying the MAX, and What If You Want to Change?
It doesn’t surprise me that the FAA hasn’t grounded the aircraft. It won’t surprise me if they do. In the meantime, customers are asking how do I know if I’m on an 737 MAX? and will my airline let me change my flight to avoid one?
- Aircraft are generally listed when you’re booking your flight, on your itinerary, and in flight schedules. American and Southwest use “7M8” as the three letter code in their schedules.
- But aircraft get swapped, you might book a Boeing 737-800 and wind up with a MAX at your gate.
- You can compare seat maps but American is increasingly converting their 737-800s to have the same interior as the MAX (only days ago we were talking about poor retrofit work that had grounded 14 737-800s).
- Neither Southwest nor American offer formal waivers for customers who want refunds or changes due to aircraft type. (Although I’ve never had an issue with American when they swap a plane and a customer says they aren’t happy with what’s scheduled, at least after escalating the matter, but that’s a different situation.)
In my experience if you’re at the airport and afraid to fly and want to take a later flight (in this case on a different aircraft) you’ll probably be allowed to do so.
Southwest is being quite explicit that they will work with passengers.
Southwest doesn't charge ticket-change fees but says it's "waiving any fare differences that might normally apply" for travelers who want to avoid the Max. Airline says it has 34 Boeing 737 Max 8s in its fleet of more than 750 Boeing 737. https://t.co/s5yiB0U1Hq
— Leslie Josephs (@lesliejosephs) March 12, 2019
Some have noted the irony that American Airlines flight attendants who are afraid to fly the MAX don’t have to work it but customers aren’t formally being given options. Of course it’s in the flight attendant contract.
When I’d Start Being Concerned About Flying the MAX
The flight attendants’ union has now called on the airline to ‘strongly consider’ grounding the aircraft. The pilots’ union has not done so. Grounding the plane means fewer flights flown by their members, and while individual pilots have their opinions the union isn’t in the business of limiting hours for their members. If the pilot unions begin to call for a grounding that would be a signal I’d pay attention to.
At the moment though is it reasonable to avoid the MAX, all else equal? Sure. Is it reasonable to take a connecting itinerary — two takeoffs and landings, each with its own (very modest) risk — to avoid a non-stop on the MAX? I’m not so sure.