The 737 Max crashes are changing our perception of airline safety

Mistakes were made.
Mistakes were made.
Image: Reuters/Thomas White
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We’re often told that the fear of getting on a plane is silly. Statistics don’t lie, and mile for mile, a car is much more likely to kill you than a plane. The work of the world’s best engineers and the prudence of government regulators, the thinking goes, mean that if you’re boarding a commercial airplane, there is every likelihood it’s safe to fly.

Now, the revelations and regulatory shortcomings that have come to light since the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 that killed 157 people on March 10—the second of two Boeing 737 Max crashes within five months—give us ample reason to pause and seriously reassess that feeling.

A caveat is needed: We don’t yet conclusively know the cause of the Ethiopian Airlines crash. We do know that preliminary black-box data shows “clear similarities” to October’s Lion Air crash after taking off from Jakarta, which indicated that a faulty feature of the plane—the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS)—drove the nose of the plane into the ocean, and killing 189 people.

We also know, thanks to reporting from the Seattle Times, that the certification process of the Max was rushed, and much of it was delegated by the US agency charged with overseeing it, the Federal Aviation Administration, to Boeing itself. We know that the way the system was designed, and approved by the FAA, relied upon a single sensor, instead of requiring the fail-safe of a second sensor in case the first reading was faulty. We know that Boeing marketed the plane as requiring little extra training for airlines using earlier versions of the 737; that training manuals made no explicit mention of the MCAS system; and that many pilots got just one hour of training on the new system on an iPad. We know that a warning light that would have alerted Lion Air’s crew to a faulty reading before takeoff was a cost-optional add-on, rather than a standard safety feature. And that’s just a partial list of apparent flaws in the system designed to keep passengers safe that have come to light in media reports in recent days—along with increased scrutiny on Boeing’s US government lobbying and ties to the Trump administration.

Of course it’s still possible, though looking less so, that the two crashes could have happened by chance or for two separate reasons. What looks more likely is that several of the checks, safety measures, and safeguards designed to protect passengers and crew members simply failed.

So what does all this mean for travelers? The statistical likelihood of any individual being involved in a plane crash may not have changed meaningfully this month. Still, the glimpse into the workings of commercial aviation that the 737 Max saga offers has highlighted how prone to human error the systems, authorities, and protocols meant to keep us safe really are.

The body in charge of many of those safeguards in the US—and by extension much of the world, since flying in and out of the US means complying with US regulations—is the FAA, which until last week had a standard-setting reputation for airline safety. Then, in an unprecedented series of events, the rest of the world’s aviation authorities (including Europe’s EASA, which holds a similar esteem to the FAA) grounded the Max before US officials deemed it necessary.

The cascade of international groundings, as Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson put it, undermined faith in the FAA as a leader in air safety, exposing it instead as “but a distant follower.” And, as a Crain’s editorial put it, the US slowness to ground the 737 Max reflected “poorly on the judgment and priorities of Boeing, US airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, the same entities whose credibility will be a key determinant of whether air travelers ever feel safe in a 737 again.” Bloomberg now reports, citing unnamed sources, that federal authorities are exploring a criminal investigation into how the 737 Max was certified, which started before the latest crash.

On March 13, when the FAA changed course and said it was grounding the plane, Boeing said it supported the move only out of an “abundance of caution.” If a final analysis of the Ethiopian Airlines crash proves it was caused by the MCAS system fault, it’s hard not to feel that level of caution will seem insufficient, rather than abundant.

Read more of Quartz’s coverage of the Boeing 737 Max crisis.