The Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes and controversy, explained

A new Boeing model has crashed twice in five months. The whole world is on edge.

The second deadly crash of a Boeing 737 Max model airplane within months of the first has put flyers around the world on edge. Multiple countries have grounded the planes as a result, though the United States has, thus far, refrained.

Here’s what happened: On Sunday, March 10, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Nairobi, Kenya, faltered and crashed soon after taking off, killing all 157 people on board. The incident was, of course, devastating. But making it even more disturbing is that it happened just months after a Lion Air flight taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia, crashed in October, killing all 189 passengers.

The flights were the exact same model of planes, Boeing 737 Max.

The second crash over the weekend sent shockwaves across the world, not only because victims came from 35 countries, but also because there are multiples of the same such jets being utilized globally. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are a total of 387 Boeing 737 Max models operating, including 74 in the United States.

The second fatal crash of a 737 Max 8 jet in under six months has raised questions about whether such planes are any longer safe to fly. Multiple countries have grounded the planes since Sunday, including Brazil, China, and India. The European Union on Tuesday suspended all flight operations of Boeing Model 737 Max 8 and 737 Max 9 in Europe.

The US, however, has been slower to act. According to NPR, three airlines fly 737 Max planes in the US: American, Southwest, and United. The FAA has come under increasing pressure to ground the jets, but thus far, it has declined. The agency has confirmed the “continued airworthiness” of the planes.

Two crashes in less than six months

On Sunday, all 157 people on the Ethiopian Airlines flight were killed after the plane lost contact with the control tower and crashed minutes after takeoff. The passengers on the plan came from more than 30 countries, and the United Nations confirmed that at least 22 staff members died in the accident.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 model of the Ethiopian Airlines flight is the same model of the Indonesian airline Lion Air Flight 610 that crashed in October, killing all 189 people on board. In November, investigators in an initial probe determined that pilots were engaged in what CNN described as a “futile tug-of-war with the plane’s automatic systems” minutes before the crash. A sensor erroneously reported that the plane was stalling and erroneously sent the plane nose down, and pilots couldn’t override it. Investigators also concluded that the plane was “no longer airworthy” when the crash occurred.

We still don’t know what happened with the Ethiopian Airlines flight, or if the plane crashed for the same reason. An international probe into the accident is underway, including with experts from the United States. Ethiopian Airlines said on Monday that the flight data recorder and cockpit recorder have been recovered. They could help investigators figure out the cause of the incident.

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told CNN on Tuesday that the pilot was “having difficulties with the flight control of the airplane” before the crash.

This has international implications

Two deadly crashes of the same plane model within months has sent ripples around the world. There is broad concern that the jets might not be safe to fly, and calls are growing for them to be grounded until investigators can figure out what’s going on and, if there is one, address the problem.

As Shannon Sims at the New York Times explained, the Boeing 737 Max 8, on the market since 2017, has been a popular one — more than 4,000 such planes were ordered within six months of its launch. Airlines like them because they have good features for passengers, like more legroom, and for the airlines themselves, namely, fuel efficiencies.

But with catastrophic incidents happening close together on a new model of planes, there are a lot of questions about whether they’re safe.

Gregory Wallace at CNN surveyed experts to see what they think. The result: They were split. Former FAA safety inspector David Soucie told Wallace that he’s “never said it’s unsafe to fly a particular model of aircraft, but in this case, I’m going to have to go there.”

He noted that Boeing after the Lion Air crash last year recommended that pilots take training to make sure they avoid the mistakes the pilot of that plane made, but he didn’t know if the Ethiopian Airlines pilot took that training. “If there was a way for me to know that, then I would most definitely get on that airplane,” he said.

Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, told Wallace that it’s “premature to ground the fleet” until more information is gathered.

Regardless of what experts say, people are understandably very nervous and afraid to board a Boeing 737 Max 8 flight in the future. Boeing’s stock price has taken a hit as well.

There are a lot of concerns about the plane itself

The accidents have spurred a lot of questions that need answering.

They’ve put scrutiny on the jet model itself, of course. According to CNBC, the October crash put scrutiny on the plane’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system. Boeing in November issued a safety bulletin for pilots explaining how to better handle it, but it’s not clear whether that’s been enough.

Boeing on Monday put out a statement on its work developing a “flight control software enhancement” for the 737 Max and said it plans to implement the change by April. The FAA also said on Monday that it will mandate design enhancements to Boeing’s automated system and signaling by April as well.

Multiple countries have grounded the Boeing 737 Max jets — Gaby Del Valle at the Goods has a more complete explanation on that. China’s Civil Aviation Administration, for example, on Monday announced a temporary ban on the planes, and Indonesia followed suit soon after. As Del Valle laid out, that’s a big deal, because China and Indonesia are two of Boeing’s biggest customers.

Multiple countries have since followed suit, and now, the US and Canada are the only two countries still flying a significant number of Boeing 737 Max 8s.

Boeing on Tuesday responded to the groundings in a statement. The company said it has “full confidence” in the safety of the jets but understands that “regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets.”

The US airlines, just like US regulators, are sticking by Boeing for now. A Southwest spokesman told USA Today the company remains “confident in the safety and airworthiness” of its fleet of Boeing aircraft, but it also appears to be helping customers figure out what type of aircraft they’re on.

A spokesperson for American Airlines told Del Valle that the company will “closely monitor the investigation in Ethiopia” but has “full confidence in the aircraft and our crew members.” The airline also tweeted that it’s waiting on an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board to figure out what to do.

Despite the reassurances — or at least calls by many in the industry to wait for facts — there is growing pressure for US regulators and airlines to do what other countries are doing here. Consumer Reports on Tuesday said that Southwest and American should have already halted flights and, since they haven’t, the FAA should.

Paul Page, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that the top job at the FAA has been vacant for the past 14 months and airline enforcement fines have dropped significantly. He also noted that the Department of Transportation has been extra friendly to the airline industry under Trump.

Multiple members of Congress have called on the FAA to ground Boeing 737 Max 8 flights, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mitt Romney (R-UT), and Ted Cruz (D-TX).

Warren also called on Congress to hold hearings to determine whether President Donald Trump’s administration is protecting Boeing.

This has raised questions about airplane automation. And that’s what Trump wants to focus on.

Sunday’s crash has also deepened concerns about airplane automation.

Konstantin Kakaes in the MIT Technology Review laid out what’s going on:

The 737 Max has bigger engines than the original 737, which make it 14% more fuel efficient than the previous generation. As the trade publication Air Current explains, the position and shape of the new engines changed how the aircraft handles, giving the nose a tendency to tip upward in some situations, which could cause the plane to stall. The new “maneuvering characteristics augmentation system” was designed to counteract that tendency.

Did these more efficient engines—and the changes they necessitated to the airplane’s automation systems—compromise the aircraft’s safety? As sociologist Charles Perrow wrote in his classic 1984 book Normal Accidents, new air-safety technologies don’t always make airplanes safer, even if they work just as well as they are supposed to. Instead of improving safety, innovations can allow airlines “to run greater risks in search of increased performance.”

But because it’s so complex, some pilots may have problems with it, especially if it’s the case that they’re not given all the training and information necessary to maneuver. That appears to have been part of the problem with the Lion Air flight. It’s not yet clear if that’s what happened with the Ethiopian Airlines flight.

The Dallas Morning News reported on Tuesday that pilots have brought multiple complaints about the safety of the Boeing 737 Max 8 to federal authorities, with one captain saying in November that it was “unconscionable” for pilots to fly the plane without training or explicit information about how its systems worked.

President Trump appears eager to lean into that explanation. He fired off a pair of tweets on Tuesday complaining that airplanes are “far too complex.”

He did not mention potential safety issues with Boeing — or Boeing at all.

Ken Vogel at the New York Times reported that early in the day on Tuesday, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg talked to Trump on the phone. He tried to convince Trump that the Boeing 737 Max planes shouldn’t be grounded in the US, and, at least for now, appears to have succeeded.


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