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Investigate Boeing 737 Max 8s after two crashes

People stand near collected debris at the crash

People stand near collected debris at the crash site of Ethiopia Airlines near Bishoftu, a town some 60 kilometres southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 11. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/MICHAEL TEWELDE

The most recent crash of a commercial passenger flight in the United States occurred a decade ago when a flight headed for Buffalo went down, killing 50 people. Since then, more than 300,000 people in the United States have been killed in motor vehicle accidents.

But that statistic doesn’t mean people have no right to be concerned with the safety of the Boeing 737 Max 8, now that two of them have crashed since October. It doesn’t mean that the 40 airlines around the world that fly these jets should ignore customer concerns. Nor does it mean the Federal Aviation Authority can be complacent.

Travelers have reason to be concerned. Airlines should heed those fears. And as a leader in the field, the FAA must do everything possible to maintain the safety of air travel in the United States and the world.

An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed Sunday, killing all 157 people on board. Last October, the same model, owned by Lion Air, crashed into the Java Sea off Indonesia, killing 189. Both went down in a similar manner, crashing just minutes after takeoff. The Max 8 is a fairly new model of the workhorse 737 series. There are only 350 flying now, but another 5,000 are on order. The first model went into service in 2017.

As of Monday afternoon, Indonesia, where Lion Air is based, and China had temporarily grounded the Max 8, as did Ethiopian Airlines and Cayman Airways. But the FAA had not acted, and the two U.S. carriers that operate the Max 8, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, said they would continue to fly the Max 8s and would not suspend fees for cancellations of flights on those planes.

That’s a mistake, for several reasons:

It’s not as if thousands of these planes have proven their reliability over a broad span of time. This model has no lengthy track record to counter fear. Two similar accidents in so short a period for a model that represents less than 2 percent of the world’s fleet is significant.

  • Only two U.S. airlines have Max 8, and neither has many. Just 24 of American Airlines’ 956 planes are Max 8s, and only 34 of Southwest’s 750 planes are. Allowing passengers to switch planes for free, or grounding these planes while the crashes are probed, isn’t going to impact airlines dramatically. The Association of Professional Flight Attendants told members Monday that American Airlines union members who feared flying on these Boeing models won’t be forced to do so. Ticketholders should not be treated differently.
  • Boeing was sued just days before the crash by the families of those who died on the Lion Air flight and now faces potentially even more liability, as well as canceled orders for its newest aircraft.

Right now, there is too little known about what caused these crashes and whether Boeing, the airlines and regulatory agencies addressed concerns properly after the October crash. The FAA says the jets are still airworthy, but it will send updated guidance if necessary.

Passengers are struggling with fear, communities are in mourning and families are grief-stricken. The airlines need to show both caution and compassion until Boeing and investigators supply answers.  — The editorial board