Warren Buffett: Won’t Hesitate Even for a Second to Fly the 737 MAX

Asked about the Boeing 737 MAX during Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders meeting, Warren Buffett said that he “will never hesitate even for a second to fly on a 737 MAX” once it returns to service.

Buffett does not directly own shares in Boeing, however the company he leads owns significant stakes in several airlines:

Airline Shares Owned Outstanding % Owned
Delta           70,910,456  676.55 million 10.5%
Southwest           54,847,399  552.69 million 9.9%
American           43,700,000  449.06 million 9.7%
United           21,938,642  266.73 million 8.2%

Southwest, American, and United all have 737 MAX aircraft in their fleets.

While the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines tragedies have similarities, faulty angle of attack readings, resulting in compensation by the aircraft’s MCAS system, compounded by mishandling by pilots (which wouldn’t be an issue but for the first two issues), the plane flies well in the absence of such faulty readings. Comparing data from multiple sensors can address this, limiting the automatic response to sensor readings can address this, and pilot training can address this.

There are separate issues that are going to need to be investigated and addressed — how design choices made it into final production, and how those choices were signed off on. That’s important on a forward-looking basis.

There appear to be plenty of screwups along the way here, for a variety of reasons, and a lot of oxes to gore too. It’s a tragic mistake that Angle of Attack disagree alerts weren’t standard and functioning on all 737 MAXs, but that error will be resolved so may not factor into any decision about whether to fly the plane in the future — even if there’s costly liability to Boeing for the oversight and even conscious decision not to act once the problem was uncovered.

In the immediate term the US appears to have given up its lead role in investigating and signing off on safety for the world. That’s marked departure. Other nations grounded the aircraft before the US did, and it appears that decisions to unground it will be made in conjunction with those agencies. Regulators are inherently conservative, and coordination of world regulators even more so.

Once the plane receives sign off from regulators around the world to return to the skies, airlines (and their insurers) are confident flying the aircraft, and pilots are comfortable in the cockpit the degree of assurance will be extremely high that the aircraft is safe.

In all likelihood Warren Buffett has fewer years left to jeopardize than I do with each decision to assumes a risk. However I think his judgment is right — no hesitation to fly the plane once it clears all of the hurdles to return to the skies.

You may have an opportunity to fly the MAX again sometime this summer. Will you let it take you where you’re going?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Interesting. I wonder if his answer would differ if his kids and/or grandkids were to fly the aircraft?

  2. I love Warren, but he’s not flying commercial (at least domestically) any time soon, so this is pretty easy for him to say.

  3. Great analysis. Yes I would. Would you? Has anyone come up with the mortality rate per hour of flying in a MAX 737, pre-fix, vs say driving in your car? I think Warren is the master of risk analysis.

  4. @ Jason. I actually think he does fly commercial…at least sometimes. I recall an article and photo of him at TSA and he had holes in his socks. Not kidding.

  5. I am with Warren. I would get on a 737Max right now without hesitation. Airbus always reminds me of a Lego toy as it shakes, flexes and rattles prior to rotation. I am still of a mind that “if it aint Boeing, I aint going”

  6. In reality, the 737 MAX will probably be the SAFEST plane to fly once it returns to service. This plane will have just gone through the wringer of worldwide scrutiny. Boeing can’t afford another screw-up either, so you can be damn sure they’ve gone over everything in gnat’s ass detail to make sure the plane is solid from here on out.

  7. Several years ago I was on a NWA DC9 that blew an engine on takeoff and ended up off the runway in a minor crash. https://www.aviationpros.com/home/news/10437314/northwest-dc9-skids-off-milwaukee-runway
    At the time I was flying all the time and I wrote down all the tail numbers of the aircraft I was flying. About 4 months later I ended up flying the exact same plane! Upon boarding I asked the captain if it was the same aircraft and he confirmed it. I had about a half second of doubt but then I realized that if the captain felt comfortable flying that plane then I was okay to fly it as well.

  8. I have flown it twice in the last two weeks. Southwest is operating it between Atlanta and Philadelphia.

  9. LOL. Talk is cheap when you fly private and will never, ever be in a position to have to fly the 737MAX.

  10. @Luckyladyd. Considering the 737MAX is still grounded WORLDWIDE, I doubt that. That may been a Southwest 737 you were one, but it wasn’t a 737MAX.

  11. An amazing lack of informed statements here. Warren Buffett not only flies on his own Gulfstream regularly, but owns NetJets as a supplement to his travels.

    And, as everyone here knows, Luckyladyd has not been flying on any 737 MAX aircraft in the last two weeks.

  12. Until all the pilot’s unions from Southwest, American and United publish a nationwide “open letter” to the flying public that they feel – without a shadow of a doubt – confident that the aircraft has passed all hurdles and the improvements made solidify their unwavering confidence in the aircraft providing the highest level of safety for passengers as well as crew I feel uncomfortable with the aircraft being placed back into service.. This would, of course, include the necessary training that supports the confidence by line pilots that there is no hesitation in operating the aircraft on a daily basis and nothing has been held out by Boeing that the pilots are not aware of – no subtle manual references, no ‘add ons’, etc. Total transparency to all pilots, the regulatory agencies and – most importantly – the flying public is mandatory. As a 46-year flight attendant, my experience necessitates these actions be accomplished.

  13. It is pretty funny to me to be VERY concerned about this airplane, but not at all worried about say a 45 mile drive to the airport at 70+ mph freeway speeds. One of those is a lot riskier than the other if you are concerned about your physical health and potential death.

  14. The question is when will Captsin Sullenberger be willing to climb aboard.
    Statistically, no one will be on the next one that crashes. But, to answer an earlier posting, if two planes out of 200 have crashed in the last two years with no survivors, how does that compare with say the number of fatalities suffered in a random parking lot with 200 cars in it? In other words, 200 cars represent 200 co workers, and of those 200 cars or co workers, how many have died in auto accidents where the car was totaled?
    In the last 20 years, we have had one fatality involving a coworker in a car crash. We also have 200-300 cars.
    Whether it was pilot error or plane error, is irrelevant because it was the same model plane and same approved pilot training.
    Will all the pilots know how to operate the controls the next time one is airborne: absolutely. But what happens if both engines fail or are turned off? Will it glide or become unstable?
    Since both engines off is unusual, it is safer than driving where an accident is statistical ly likely eventually.
    But a company that puts all their executives on the same 737max may be playing odds that they didnt intend to.

  15. I won’t be flying the MAX until I see 6 month track record with zero incidents similar to the ones previously encountered. Buffet is a very savvy investor but I think all of us would be delighted to get an 8% virtually guaranteed return and some warrants as a sweetener (as he did from his latest deal). He also owns a stake a lot of unethical companies (GEICO, Quicken Loans, etc.) so it doesn’t surprise me he has a big stake in airlines. Also not sure how financial acumen qualifies him to assess aircraft safety.

    It is pretty clear that the 737 MAX is fundamentally different in terms of engineering than its predecessors, and thus Boeing’s otherwise stellar track record is irrelevant to the discussion. I would have no hesitation to fly any prior Boeing (or Airbus) planes but no thanks on the MAX.

    In fact I’d trust Engineer Scott (a fictional character) more than I’d trust Buffet: “Fool me once, jokes on you. Fool me twice…”

  16. DC Joe you have the wrong analogy. It is not a choice between a car ride and an airplane. It is a choice between selecting another airline (likely at the same price) or rolling the dice on a death trap. It is no different than deciding to buy a new Volvo vs. buying a beat up Ford pinto.

  17. To paraphrase Woody Allen, taking flight safety advice from an investment manager is like dancing about architecture.

    I will take the same approach as I did with the 787 after the battery issues – I will wait for about 3-4 years of incident free operation and then happily board.

  18. I love how everyone is talking about Boeing, for me the real conversation is the fact that the Ethiopian co-pilot had 200 hours flight time. FAA requires 250 hours just for a commercial license, let alone a jet. The regional airlines have 1,000-1,500 hour minimums to fly the CRJ’s

  19. @Jim. There are more 200 hour co-pilots (actual low flight time…experience) flying for international non US carriers than you might think. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) signed off years ago on the Multi-pilot Crew Pilot License (MPL) as a way of dealing with the shortage of qualified pilots in basically all Third World countries. Zero time pilots are hired as “aviation cadets” given “extensive” ground school and simulator training and placed in the right seat of a commercial airliner carrying unsuspecting passengers. It’s on-the-job training at it’s highest level! Works fairly well until the inevitable “fit hits the Shan”. I’ve dealt with a few of “extensive” training co-pilots. Quite often their experience is “P-51” time, as in Parker Pen, and is unsubstantiated except for their personal log book or training records from dubious flight schools.
    When given the choice I recommend flying in airplanes with an “N” number.

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