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In the wake of last month’s fatal Lion Air crash in which a Boeing 737 MAX 8 plane suddenly plummeted into the Java Sea and killed all 189 people on board, there has been intense scrutiny over the popular aircraft model involved in the crash.

Officials have made significant headway in the investigation of the ill-fated plane. They’ve identified that erroneous data from the jet’s airspeed indicators and a sensor that reports the angle of the plane’s nose might have set off an automatic stall-prevention system that Boeing didn’t tell any pilots or airlines about.

After those discoveries, both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration sent out safety bulletins to carriers who operate the MAX 8, indicating that airlines should add information about the anti-stall system to their operation manuals for the plane.

The Federal Aviation Administration said that its regulators and Boeing “continue to evaluate the need for software and/or other design changes to the aircraft including operating procedures and training as we learn more from the ongoing investigation,” an FAA spokesperson told TPG in an emailed statement on Wednesday. (Boeing declined to comment on the FAA’s statement).

But while the investigation unfolds, should passengers be nervous about flying on a 737 MAX?

An American Airlines 737 Max 8 plane interior. Single aisle aircraft are not required by the ADA to have a wheelchair accessible bathroom.
An American Airlines 737 MAX 8 interior.

What Is the Boeing 737 MAX?

First, some background on the aircraft model itself.

The 737 MAX generation of aircraft is an updated version of Boeing’s workhorse 737 twin-engine plane that has been in operation for decades. The 737 has sold more than any other jetliner in its 50-year career, but the MAX models have very little in common with the original 737s.

MAX planes are more fuel-efficient than older 737s, largely thanks to new engines, and began carrying passengers in 2017.  The model comes in four different variants: -7, -8, -9 and -10, from the smallest to the largest (the -7 and -10 haven’t been delivered to airlines yet). The MAX variants of the 737 are Boeing’s fastest-selling generation of airplanes ever. The company has inked more than 4,700 orders for the variant of the single-aisle jet for more than 100 carriers worldwide. But only 241 of those planes have been actually delivered to airlines.

The MAX 8 was the first variant to be developed and to fly passengers. The plane mostly handles short-haul flights, but it has a maximum range of about 3,825 nautical miles — enough for trans-Atlantic flights from the East Coast of the US and Canada to Western Europe.

Seats on a Southwest 737 MAX 8.

Which Airlines Have Boeing 737 MAX Planes in Their Fleets?

Southwest Airlines and American Airlines are the only US carriers that fly the 737 MAX 8. Southwest operates 26 MAX 8s and American operates 16 of the same variant. Both have many more on order. United Airlines currently flies eight MAX 9s, out of 135 ordered, including the MAX 10, while Alaska Airlines has placed 32 orders for the MAX 9 jet and has yet to receive the first.

Many international airlines fly 737 MAXs, but only a few serve US markets. Some of the international airlines that operate MAXs most notable for US flyers are Norwegian (with 14 MAX 8s), Icelandair (with three MAX 8s), Aeromexico (with five MAX 8s) and Air Canada (with 18 MAX 8s).

Southwest
Southwest’s Boeing 737 MAX 8

So Are 737 MAXs Safe?

Airlines that operate the MAX have insisted that the planes are safe to fly — especially after complying with the FAA’s emergency safety bulletin, called an airworthiness directive. No airlines have grounded their 737 MAX planes in the wake of the fatal Lion Air 610 flight. So any upcoming flights booked on a 737 MAX are likely to proceed.

Boeing said it is “confident in the safety of the 737 MAX” in an email to TPG.

“The bottom line here is the 737 MAX is safe,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said Tuesday on Fox Business Network. “This airplane went through thousands of hours of tests and evaluations, certification, working with the pilots, and we’ve been very transparent on providing information and being fully cooperative on the investigative activity.”

American Airlines also reiterated that its MAX 8s were safe to fly passengers. “We complied with the Emergency Airworthiness Directive last Friday, which reiterates procedures already in the Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) for non-normal events,” American told TPG in an email. “The Emergency Airworthiness Directive reiterated existing, well-established procedures for MAX 8 pilots. At American, we have not had similar issues regarding an erroneous Angle of Attack during manual flight.”

Southwest also said its fleet of 26 MAX 8 aircraft “remains fully operational,” and the carrier doesn’t anticipate any service disruptions. “Safety is the top priority at Southwest, and we will continue to work closely with Boeing and the FAA to maintain the integrity of our fleet and validate our operating practices,” the airline told TPG in a statement. The airline also “issued additional communication highlighting the existing procedures to the more than 9,500 Southwest Pilots that operate our 737 MAX 8 fleet.”

So, although the Lion Air investigation is ongoing, it’s likely that the issue that might have led to the crash has been isolated, and crews are now aware of it. According to the Statistical Summary of Jet Airplane Accidents, a Boeing publication considered the industry standard on aviation safety data, the previous generation of 737s — the 600 through 900 models — is among the safest airplanes, with 0.08 fatal accidents per million departures. The industry average since 1959 is 0.66.

Image from Boeing Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents
Image from Boeing Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents

 

Featured image by Zach Honig/TPG

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