Following the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 this week and Lion Air flight JT610 last October, and the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft that operated those flights, aviation safety is at the front of many people’s minds.
I’m an aviation journalist, and I understand if you’re worried whether the 737 MAX is safe to fly, and are asking whether other Boeing aircraft, including other 737s, are affected. Aircraft crashes are incredibly rare these days, much more so than they used to be, but the idea is still frightening, and high definition pictures and video spread around the world at the speed of Twitter.
At the same time, today’s media lack expertise in aviation, and it’s more lucrative for the news to spread fear than reassurance. It’s okay to be worried, but if you take one thing away from reading this article, please know that flying is still one of the safest things you can do.
The 737 is a proven and reliable airplane, and the MAX is its most recent generation
The 737 itself has over 50 years of history behind it, starting out as a little puddle-jumper seating fewer than 120 people back when engines weren’t so powerful in the 1960s. Since then, various models have been built with longer bodies, new wings, better engines, and so the larger 737s can seat over 200 and fly up to eight hours or so depending on the model.
Boeing has built over ten thousand (yes, ten thousand) 737s of the various models. It’s a really common plane and has proven its safety. Inside, it has one aisle with three seats on either side in economy, and two on either side in first class.
Boeing’s 737 MAX family is made up of four types of medium-sized aircraft, the MAX 7, MAX 8, MAX 9 and MAX 10. The MAX generation is new, so only the MAX 8 and MAX 9 have been built so far— nearly 400 of them right now.
While there are some passing similarities with other planes, there’s no reason to think that any other Boeing aircraft would be affected by whatever made these two 737 MAX 8 planes crash. Indeed, no other planes have been grounded at the same time as the MAX. Let me explain why.
But what did make these two 737 MAX planes crash?
The short answer — and the one you’ll get from most industry experts — is that we don’t know, that the planes are now grounded while experts are investigating, that aviation is still very safe. It’s still much safer to fly than driving to the airport or crossing the street to take public transportation, which you probably wouldn’t think twice about.
The key question is whether the Lion Air crash and the Ethiopian crash are related. Here’s where things get technical —and entirely speculative.
The MAX, which is the latest generation of the 737, has bigger engines than older versions. As planes go, the 737 is pretty low to the ground (because it was designed over 50 years ago when engines were a lot smaller) and so Boeing had to create new pylons to attach them higher up and ahead of the wings.
The result of that is that the aerodynamics of the plane change a little, and one of the consequences is that the MAX is more prone to pitching upwards in certain situations. That can lead to stalling, where the plane isn’t going fast enough to keep the air moving over its wings properly. Boeing fixed this with a new piece of software called MCAS, which automatically points the plane downwards to avoid the stall.
One of the key sets of questions being asked is whether MCAS is working properly, whether it’s clearly indicated when it activates, whether there’s a certain period of time just after takeoff where it might be creating problems for pilots, and whether pilots have been trained for it. These are detailed, complex and very time-consuming questions to answer, and there are more questions besides.
While the investigators of both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crash try to answer all those questions, but also keep open minds as to all the possibilities, the answer from the world’s safety regulators based on the latest information they have is to ground the planes until information from the Ethiopian MAX’s black boxes gives further details.
With the MAX grounded, again, there’s no reason to think that any other planes — including other models of 737 with the older smaller engines without the different aerodynamics — are affected, and you should continue flying in confidence. I know I will.
John Walton is an international aviation journalist, follow him @thatjohn.
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