After 2 deadly crashes that claimed the lives of 346 people, can airlines, regulators, and Boeing itself convince you to fly on the compromised 737 Max plane?
A big ask
It’s been almost 3 months since the US-designed Boeing 737 Max 8 planes were grounded. The plane model, which was involved in 2 deadly crashes, has been the subject of scrutiny ever since.
Just last month, the American plane maker met with more than 60 regulators, including the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to discuss the model’s future. No clear date has been set regarding when the plane will take to the skies again.
In fact, it’s not clear if people want to ride on the plane anymore in the first place.
According to a survey released by the Atmosphere Research Group, and as reported by the Los Angeles Times (LA Times), at least 20% of US travelers say they will definitely avoid the plane in the first six months after flights resume. More than 40% said they’d be willing to take pricier or less convenient flights to stay off the Max.
On the other hand, only 14% of U.S. passengers would definitely fly on a 737 Max within six months of its return. The ARG survey interviewed 2,000 US airline passengers from April 27 to May 1.
A separate UBS Group AG survey found that 70% would hesitate today to book a flight on Boeing’s bestselling jet, the LA Times noted.
“Travelers aren’t merely scared of the 737 Max, they’re terrified of it,” Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, said in the report, which was released Tuesday. “The 737 Max is, for now, an ‘airplane non grata’ — a plane passengers do not want to fly.”
While it’s certainly true that many travelers are likely to avoid the 737 Max upon learning it was involved in two crashes, most customers are not actively aware what model plane they’re opting for when they book, which does call to question the exaggeration in Harteveldt’s statement.
“How many fliers actually know or even care about the airplane they are on?” Saj Ahmad, Chief Analyst at StrategicAero Research, posits in a conversation with AMEinfo, calling out the validity of such user surveys. “And if they do, it stands to reason that if they fear the MAX, they should be savvy enough not to book flights on it.”
In fact, the UBS survey confirms what Ahmad is saying, finding that “nearly two-thirds of respondents said they seldom or never check what type of aircraft their flight is using,” as per a Wichita Business Journal (WBJ) article “[Only] 12% said their concerns would not be alleviated by a safe return to service and safe continual operation of the aircraft.”
WBJ noted that UBS analysts concluded that “the ‘stigma’ of the grounded jets will fade over time, causing UBS to say it does not expect ‘significant share erosion’ for Boeing.”
“When the MAX returns to service and makes a few dozen flights without any hiccup, I don’t foresee any melee about it and interest in it will wane,” Ahmad mirrored in opinion. “Then, it’ll be business as usual for airlines, passengers and the 737 MAX.”
A new issue with 737 Max?
This week, Boeing informed the FAA that certain 737NG and 737Max leading edge slat tracks may have been improperly manufactured and may not meet all applicable regulatory requirements for strength and durability. The FAA determined that up to 148 parts manufactured by a Boeing sub-tier supplier are affected.
Although a complete failure of a leading edge slat track would not result in the loss of the aircraft, a risk remains that a failed part could lead to aircraft damage in flight, the FAA explained.
Original software issue supposedly resolved
Last month, Boeing reportedly completed an update that fixes its faulty MCAS system, which is suspected to have caused both crashes. MCAS, or the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, is an automated safety feature on the 737 Max 8 designed to prevent the plane from entering into a stall, or losing lift.
Boeing has yet to submit the fix to the FAA, although it was expected to late last month.
Still, even if the FAA signs off on the fix and declares the 737 Max sky-worthy, it might not be enough. Other regulators will not simply take their word for it.
Conflict amid regulators?
Tim Clark, president of Emirates airlines, gave an alarming statement on Sunday at the IATA conference in Seoul.
Speaking to Bloomberg, he said that he expects that the 737 Max will likely not be back in the skies before December, because of a lack of cooperation between global regulators.
We have already seen conflicting opinions in the regulator space. AFP reported in April that Canadian and American regulators have differed on the proper training for the 737 Max 8, with Canada insisting pilots train in a flight simulator, and the US saying a training course on a computer or iPad is enough.
Some critics of the FAA are highlighting that the American regulator is being too soft on Boeing. The FAA was, after all, the last international regulator to ground the 737 Max 8 and 9.
As for airlines worldwide, they want to see a resolution amid regulators.
“Airlines urged regulators on Sunday (at the IATA conference in Seoul) to coordinate on software changes to the Boeing 737 MAX in a bid to avoid damaging splits over safety seen when the aircraft was grounded in March,” Reuters reported.
“While other regulators may not want to follow the FAA, airlines across the globe will no doubt put pressure on their own agencies so that they can get their 737 MAXs up and running again,” Ahmad said.
“The biggest issue here is that the FAA and EASA lead the way in airplane certification efforts – most other agencies and regulators may have their own standards but even these are paced by the FAA and EASA to ensure a degree of conformity across the globe,” he continued.
“Therefore it’ll be very difficult for country regulators to maintain their ban on the MAX when, for example, the FAA lifts it. They’ll all be looking at the same data points, software, handling characteristics and training suites – so it’ll be interesting to see who diverges from the FAA’s position and what justification they use.”