To Ground, Or Not To Ground The MAX 8? That Is The (Impatient And Premature) Question
Featured photo: Southwest Boeing 737-800 MAX 8 shown moments before landing at the Los Angeles International airport. (Getty Images)
By Dan Reed
American Airlines grounded 14 Boeing 737-800s last week because of problems with the installation of new, larger overhead storage bins in the planes’ cabins. Very few people noticed. Fewer still cared.
Yet the nation’s – and the world’s – largest airline won’t ground 24 MAX 8 versions of the 737-800 aircraft now operating in its fleet following the second deadly crash Sunday in Ethiopia of a MAX 8 in less than five months. And now the question of grounding every MAX 8 in the nation – or even in the world – dominates the national discussion.
For that matter, neither United, which has around a dozen MAX 8s in its active fleet, nor Southwest, which is flying nearly three-dozen MAX 8s right now is grounding their copies of the latest and largest version yet of the world’s best-selling jet airliner, the 737. Both Boeing and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration also are standing behind the MAX 8 (at least they were as of Tuesday afternoon), refusing to bow to the growing pressure from around the globe to put the global MAX 8 fleet on the ground. Some – but not all – individual airlines and/or aviation regulators and safety authorities around the world already have issued grounding orders for the MAX 8.
So what gives? Why won’t U.S. carriers, Boeing and the FAA follow the crowd, if for no other reason than, as they say, “out of an abundance of caution?”
Yes, grounding all the MAX 8s, even if only for a few days, would create travel problems for thousands of travelers a day, and cost carriers millions of dollars a day in foregone revenue – plus lost face and marketing momentum for Boeing. But the MAX 8 has been in service for only 22 months. There are only a little over 100 in service around the world so far – and just 72 operating in this nation. So grounding them now would be a lot less costly than it would be in a few more years when 1,000 or more MAX 8s are dominating airline fleets globally.
Besides, if everybody and their dog already is talking about the MAX 8’s reliability and safety performance, how could a brief grounding and safety check do any more harm to Boeing’s reputation that what’s already being done to it?
Those are all valid questions. And lots supposed “experts” – ranging from authentic technical aircraft design/operational/experts to “No, but I played one on TV” kind of experts (i.e., frequent fliers, people holding private pilots licenses, respected aviation journalists and, especially, politicians and the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.) have weighed in on the “to ground, or not to ground” question. And so far the only result is widespread confusion and wild illogic.
That’s because what’s both known and unknown about the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 gives us very little from which either real experts or the armchair variety can make valid decisions.
So let’s try to think our way through the issues together in order to arrive – hopefully – at some sort of consensus decision:
- How similar is the crash of Ethiopian 302 to the crash of Lion Air 610 on Oct. 29 in the Java Sea?
Yes, it is eerily similar that both planes were the same type, happened within 10 minutes of takeoff, and exhibited somewhat (but not entirely) similar flight behaviors just prior to crashing. But there remains a ton of information we don’t yet know because investigators don’t yet have a readout and analysis of the two black boxes (the flight data recorder which captures several dozen aircraft systems data streams, and the cockpit voice recorder, which captures the pilots conversations plus all the alarms, bells, switch clicks and other noises in the cockpit during the harrowing event).
In historical terms, even in crashes involving similar aircraft and technical problems there always are key differences in both the actual flow of events and in the peripheral considerations including training, pilot experience, weather conditions, maintenance prior to the flights and more. Certainly the similarities need to be understood quite well. But so do the dissimilarities, of which inevitably there will be very many.
- To what degree is public angst and lack of understanding – and political pressure – playing a role in the debate over whether to ground or not ground the MAX 8?
Putting some sort of number on that is impossible, but obviously public angst and politicians’ instincts to “do something” even before they understand the situation well enough to make an informed decision are playing a huge role in the current debate. So does culture. China, for example, has a well-earned reputation for conservative response to situations that hold the potential for cause politicians to “lose face,” as certainly would happen should a Chinese airline suffer a MAX 8 crash any time soon. So it’s not surprising that China would be the first country other than Ethiopia itself to ground MAX 8s.
France, too, is reputationally-sensitive, so its grounding of MAX 8s isn’t surprising. Nor is the similar decision Tuesday by the European Union, which to a large degree is French-led on such matters. Smaller countries lacking great technical aviation acumen also are more likely to act quickly to ground planes in such circumstances while they wait for the real experts from larger, more advanced and wealthier nations to sort out the cause of the crashes. Small countries also have little to lose, especially with brand-new aircraft like the MAX 8 that occupy a very slim sliver of their aviation market.
But that doesn’t fully explain why the United Kingdom, where the aviation safety environment is both sophisticated and technically quite capable joined in on the MAX 8 grounds very quickly. Then again, Britain’s aviation safety regulation and monitoring institutions are in an odd predicament right now. Much of their expertise and capability in recent years had been transferred to the E.U. But with Brexit scheduled to happen in just over two weeks, aviation safety responsibilities within the U.K. will return to British agencies. So those agencies currently are scrambling to gear up to resume those responsibilities, assuming Brexit happens on schedule. Chances are they’re overwhelmed right now and have neither the staff nor the resources to do their own analysis of the MAX 8 question.
- Do the real “experts” actually know what they’re talking about, and if so, are they unbiased?
The real experts do, in fact, know what they’re doing. That’s why they aren’t talking much about the MAX 8 ground question just yet. They know enough to know that they don’t yet know enough – about the Ethiopian 302 crash’s specifics to support or oppose the grounding of MAX 8s. They simply don’t have enough information to make an informed decision.
However, some real aviation safety experts currently argue that in the absence of clear evidence that the MAX 8 is somehow flawed, there is no valid reason to ground it – at least not yet. They reason from the absence of other safety-related issues with the MAX 8 and, especially from the absence of issues with the MAX 8 among airlines from advanced, mature aviation markets like the U.S., Japan and Europe that a grounding is not warranted. Rather, they note that the two MAX 8 crashes in the last five months both involve carriers (one well-regarded but small, Ethiopian, the other not-so-well-regarded and even smaller, Lion Air based in Indonesia) from less sophisticated and/or smaller markets. That, in turn points to potential problems with training and/or maintenance capabilities at such carriers that are highly unlikely to exist with top-tier airlines like the three U.S. operators of MAX 8s.
As for the question of experts’ bias, with the possible exception of Boeing experts concerned about their company’s reputation, the real experts largely are unbiased. Essentially they are forensic scientists who will go where the evidence takes them – once they have that evidence in hand and analyzed.
- But what about the pseudo-experts (including this writer)?
Well, the truth is that our “expertise” and $1.69 will buy you a 20 oz. soda at the corner convenience store. We don’t really know. Now, we can make reasonably educated guesses better than most other people. But they’re still guesses as to whether there’s really anything to be concerned about with the MAX 8. Good P.R. and legal practice tells us that it’s better to be safe than sorry. So from those perspectives grounding the MAX 8s makes sense, especially since there are relatively few of them in service so far. But many of us, especially those coming from the world of journalism, should know from experiences covering crime and trials or doing investigative work on many different subjects that while we often start an investigation because similarities between two or more events those events quite often turn out to be loaded with many important differences in facts and contributing factors. Those investigative experiences would argue against grounding the MAX 8s based on the paucity of hard facts known thus far about the crash of Ethiopian 302.
- Do politicians know what they’re talking about in these cases?
In nearly every case, no.
Politicians are hair-triggered to “do something” in response to citizens’ expressed concerns. Being accused – even without conviction – of inaction or indifference in the face of a problem that has captured the public’s attention is almost certain political death. So it’s quite predictable that they would call for grounding the MAX 8s in response to citizens’ comments in news stories that they’re worried.
Of course, it is theoretically possible for politicians to actually know a little something about the subjects on which they express opinions. But in this case, it just ain’t so. Whether it’s Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein or Republican Senator Mitt Romney addressing the issue, both of who have said publicly they support grounding the MAX 8, there’s no one in elected federal office who knows diddly about aviation safety. There have been over the years a number of members of Congress who are themselves private pilots, and more than a few who flew in the military. But that doesn’t make any of them aviation safety experts or omniscient about the facts of the Ethiopian 302 crash. Several even were astronauts (former Senators John Glenn, Jake Garn, Harrison Schmitt and Bill Nelson, plus Apollo 13 survivor Jack Swigert, who was elected to the Senate from Colorado but died before taking office). Yet even they wouldn’t qualify as real aviation safety experts.
Beyond that, President Donald Trump, who once owned his own eponymous airline, exposed his lack of aviation safety expertise on Tuesday when he Tweeted about the “problem” of modern airliners having become too complex for pilots to fly without an MIT-trained engineer’s help.
True, modern airlines are very complex, and their technology can be overwhelming in crisis situations. But that’s been the case since at least the early 1980s. And it’s why commercial pilots receive training worth several millions dollars over their careers. Plus, since at least the mid-1990s much of the training that pilots at U.S. airlines receive emphasizes that the first thing a pilot must do when encountering an issue is to turn the technology off and “fly the plane” by hand rather than getting distracted troubleshooting the technology issues. They’re also trained to work as teams, with one pilot flying the plane manually while the other works on the technology issues, when and if time allows.
Furthermore, the data show rather conclusively that while adding technology to modern commercial aircraft has added lots of complexity to pilots’ jobs, U.S. airlines have shown amazing improvement in their safety performance since all that technology began appearing in cockpits. U.S. carriers did not have a single fatal crash 2010 and 2018. Excluding the 500 or so killed aboard the four planes high jacked by terrorists on 9-11, fewer than 300 people have died in crashes of U.S. commercial planes in the entire 21st century.
Thus, flying continues to be, by awide margin, the safest way to travel for Americans, and pretty much everyone else in the world.
To be sure, no one wants to discount the real concerns raised by the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines MAX 8 crashes involving MAX 8 aircraft. But within just a few days we should know whether there’s anything so wrong with the MAX 8, the world’s newest and most advance aircraft with nearly two years of otherwise non-eventful service, that it warrants immediate grounding. That evidence will be obtained and adequately analyzed over the next day or two, after which a well-informed decision about the MAX 8’s short-term airworthiness can be made.
In the meantime, travelers – and politicians – in this country should take some degree of comfort from the fact that the three U.S. carriers that fly the MAX 8 currently – American, United and Southwest – all have strong reputations for hiring and training excellent pilots, for aircraft maintenance and for safe operations.
Here’s the list of nations or individual airlines that have grounded the Boeing 737-800 MAX 8 as of Tuesday afternoon: Argentina (Aerolíneas Argentinas), Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil (GOL Linhas Aéreas), Cayman Islands (Cayman Airways), China, Ethiopia, European Aviation Safety Agency (most E.U. nations), France, Germany, Iceland (Icelandair), India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico (Aeromexico), Mongolia (MIAT Mongolian Airlines), Morocco (Royal Air Maroc), Netherlands, Norway (Norwegian), Oman, Poland, Singapore, South Africa (Comair), South Korea (Eastar Jet), Turkey, United Kingdom (TUI Airways). In some cases where the nation named is not the home of an airline that operates MAX 8s the ban forbids foreign airlines from landing a MAX 8 at any airport within that nation or, in some cases, from even flying a MAX 8 through that nation’s airspace.