Is flying still safe after two fatal crushes with Boeing’s 737 MAX jetliner?

Commercial flying, an industry that has changed our transportation method dramatically, is put into doubt, after Boeing, one of the two world leading aircraft manufacturers, has its newest product – 737 MAX’s two fatal crashes within half a year. The two accidents, namely Lion Air flight 610 on October 29, 2018, and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 on March 10, 2019, reported 346 fatal deaths combined. The Federal Aviation Administration then reacted by grounding all of the aircraft type worldwide, causing major losses to airlines, and the cancellation of thousands of flights. These series of incidents did not just damage Boeing’s reputation hardly, but they also left us with the question: is flying safe overall?

A parking lot at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, filled with undelivered Boeing 737 MAX aircraft

For centuries, the commercial aircraft manufacturing industry has been dominated by two giants – Boeing based in Seattle, USA and Airbus based in Toulouse, France. Whereas Airbus is a combining effort of many different European countries and only started in the seventies with its first model A300, Boeing has celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016, and has been the world leading company in the field since the second world war. Boeing has always been one of, if not the biggest and most well respected aircraft manufacturers. Throughout its existing time, Boeing has built over 20,000 aircrafts, targeting different markets, including the famous Boeing 747, given the fancy name “Queen of the sky”, which has the capacity of carrying over 500 passengers at a time. Boeing 737 on the other hand, had its first model flying back in the late 1960s, and with its huge success, Boeing kept developing the model with modern engines, fancy cabin decoration and functions. 

The MAX model first flew in 2014, and was delivered to airlines only from 2017. Most industries are profit driven, and aviation is no different. Traditionally, aircraft manufacturers often develop on existing models. Airbus did the same with their A320neo, so as Mcdonnell Douglas with their MD-11 series. The results were always positive. The aircrafts saved the company money from having to design new models, were more fuel efficient and were modern looking, like 737 MAX, which has a 20% lower fuel consumption over its previous model 737NG. Airlines always prefer buying a developed aircraft over a newly designed model for its reliability and to use as direct replacement of their older siblings already in the fleet. The training fee of new pilots and maintenance stuff can be saved. This is especially popular within the low cost carriers, like Southwest Airlines or Ryanair, and of course, Lion Air.

The 737 MAX has a list of improvements, including aerodynamic and structural changes, newly equipped engines, and a newly introduced system called MCAS. This is a flight control software system, developed to handle the low-speed and high angle of attack flights. In other words, Boeing is trying to reduce the potential risk from its aerodynamic design using a computer software to adjust the flying statues. Obviously it didn’t work out as Boeing would have thought, the two accidents were both caused by the fault of the MCAS system. In Lion Air flight 610, the MCAS system suddenly started to drag the plane downward. Since the pilot didn’t have the authority to manually shut the system down, he couldn’t do anything but only to crash after a few unsuccessful attempts to save the plane. The crashes were directly caused by the MCAS system’s fault.

Looking at the reaction, the type was being grounded all over the world within two days of the second crush. The response of medias across the globe was to criticize Boeing with their irresponsible attitude of promoting an unapproved product. However, it is vital to know, that flying is actually safer than railway transport and road transport. Road accident happen everyday with fatal crashes all over the world, not to mention that its not as environmental friendly and fast as air travel. The reason why the media often exaggerate air accidents is because they always results in a large number of deaths. But overall, the chance of air accidents is significantly lower than other ways. Of course, Boeing is to be blamed, and they are punished harshly as well. But we can’t deny Boeing’s importance and contribution just because of accidents of one type of aircraft. The reliability can’t be guaranteed before FAA announces its final judgement on Boeing, but it’s important to notice that 737 MAX is only a tiny proportion of all airplanes flying, and is already being grounded. Safety is the biggest concern of the world highest aviation authority FAA.

Although it’s arguable to question the position of Boeing of putting profit in front of safety, air travel is still, as it has always been, the most reliable way of travelling. Even if Boeing lost all of its reputation for some of travelers, there are still a lot of other models being produced by other manufacturers all over the world. Aviation safety should be highly valued, but we should look at the problem in a wider perspective, and there is enough evidence to comfortably say that flying, is still safe.

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