Sunday, April 14, 2024

“I need to leave the airplane.” The people don’t want to travel on Boeing’s 737 Max

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Ed Pierson had a trip from Seattle to New Jersey in 2023. He booked a flight with Alaska Airlines, avoiding Boeing 737 Max planes. At the airport, he realized the plane was a Max, so he left. After some discussion, Alaska rebooked him on a different flight later that day. Pierson, an ex-Naval officer and Boeing manager, fears the Max due to past crashes and incidents. An Alaska plane had a fuselage issue recently, raising concerns. Experts say it could happen again. The older Max 8 model was in fatal crashes, blamed on a faulty system.

After the situation in Alaska, Boeing CEO David Calhoun assured investors that they would work closely with the FAA and others to address the issues. Calhoun admitted responsibility and emphasized the need for improvement. Following the incident, changes were made in the company’s management, with the head of the Max program being replaced. This decision is in response to concerns that Boeing is putting profits before safety.

The FAA is checking Boeing’s quality control stuff to make sure they focus on safety. They’re looking at the production lines in Boeing’s Renton factory and Spirit AeroSystems in Kansas. The FAA gave Boeing 90 days to fix quality and safety issues on February 28.

Boeing says their 737 MAX planes are used by over 80 airlines, making 5,000 flights a day with a good safety record. But some passengers still worry.

When the MAX planes were grounded for 20 months after a crash in 2019, a poll showed that 25% of Americans had little confidence in the planes. Even after they came back, 57% said they would be unlikely to fly in a MAX after hearing about safety issues. And 31% didn’t trust the FAA to put safety first in approving flights.

Despite most countries allowing MAX 8 to fly again by 2021, some people still feel unsure about it.

“It’s kind of scary that this plane has had so many problems,” said Stephanie King, who was on the Alaska Airlines flight with issues in January. “I hope they fix it so it doesn’t happen again.”

Even on the flight booking site Kayak, they’ve noticed a lot more people avoiding the Max planes (models 8 and 9) since January. The site added a filter for that after the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019.

And it’s not just one incident; people all over are unsure about airplane safety. After the Alaska problem, a survey found that almost a third of Americans aren’t very confident about planes being free from structural issues. While most think planes are as safe as cars or trains, not many are totally sure that planes are completely problem-free.

Some folks like Belén Estacio won’t fly the Max anymore. After the Alaska incident, she changed her plans to avoid it. “I don’t care which model, I just don’t want to fly them,” she said. Now, she checks what kind of plane it is before booking any flight and prefers Airbus.

Elayne Grimes from the UK also avoids the Max. She got worried after the first crash in 2018 and actively looks for airlines without the Max planes. When the second crash happened in 2019, she was convinced she made the right choice.

In 2022, Grimes watched a Netflix show about Boeing and thought they prioritize profit over people. She won’t fly on their planes soon. Even though the FAA cleared the Max to fly again, Grimes thinks the problems are still there. The recent incidents and findings make her uneasy about flying on Boeing planes.

Grimes loves aviation but has concerns. Another person, Elliot Sharod, who took 78 flights last year, is unsure about flying the Max. After the crashes, they lost trust in Boeing. They prefer older Boeing models, like the 777s and original 737s, designed when engineers had more control.

There were internal messages from Boeing employees talking about the Max’s “piss poor design” and calling it a “leaky boat.” The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure investigated and found serious problems with Boeing’s design, development, and certification of the Max. Boeing responded, saying the messages were unacceptable, and they acknowledged the issues outlined by the committee.

Boeing said that when the Max 8 comes back, it’ll be checked a lot to make sure it’s safe. They’re confident it’s safe.

They’ve been working hard to make safety better and rebuild trust with customers and regulators. They made big changes to their company and keep finding ways to make things better.

A report from the House Committee talked about concerns with the FAA and how it didn’t watch Boeing well during the Max design and between the crashes. The report said FAA’s rules let this bad plane fly.

An FAA spokesperson said they fixed things in how they check and certify planes recently. They took action after a problem with Alaska Airlines in January 5.

Rory Kennedy directed a documentary about the crashes. She followed the investigation and found it disturbing. Her film talks to ex-Boeing workers and worried pilots who say the crashes were waiting to happen. Boeing hid a system called MCAS during the design, and the House committee found they kept it secret from FAA, airlines, and pilots.

Even after the Lion Air crash, FAA knew the Max might crash every two years without a fix. But they didn’t stop the plane then.

In 2020, House committee chair Peter DeFazio said Boeing and FAA played with public safety.

A person from the FAA mentioned that they stopped the Max from expanding production and are keeping a close eye on Boeing and its suppliers. They’re checking everything at Boeing’s 737 MAX facility in Washington and at Spirit AeroSystems in Kansas with a team of around 24 aviation safety inspectors.

Kennedy wants a fair hearing in Congress, like the one that looked into the Max crashes. She thinks there should be an investigation into Boeing’s culture, decisions at the top, and whether they prioritize money over safety.

Critics say that Boeing’s culture changed in 1997 when they merged with McDonnell Douglas, shifting from focusing on engineering to just making profits. DeFazio criticized Boeing’s “broken safety culture” in 2020, blaming them for putting profits first and causing the deaths of 346 people.

In 2021, Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion to settle charges of defrauding the FAA during the Max certification. Deveney Williams believes Boeing’s profit-driven culture cost her friend’s life.

In March 2019, Williams’ friend, Samya Stumo, was on the Ethiopian Airlines flight. They were supposed to move into an apartment in Washington, D.C.

“I try to avoid Boeing as much as I can. I go for Airbus even if it’s pricier or a different route,” said Williams.

“I didn’t know much about plane models before, but now I’ve learned how to check the model when buying a ticket. I help friends switch flights or avoid this. I’ve learned a lot, and I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”

For Williams, the Alaska incident was oddly relieving because it happened in the US. The blame for the crashes wasn’t on the pilots this time. “It’s on American soil, so I assume it was an American pilot – no one else to blame.”

“Airlines don’t make it easy to switch”
Torleif Stumo, Samya’s brother, had a similar incident to Ed Pierson. His plane was switched to a Max at the last moment, noticed only when he saw the safety card in his flight from Panama City to Bogotá in August 2023.

“I don’t usually get anxious, but that was one of the closest times,” he says.

“The crew was great. Initially, they offered to change my seat to first class. But when I explained why I wanted to get off, they understood and brought the plane back to the gate.”

Stumo stayed at an airport hotel. The airline rebooked him for free after hearing a phone call he made to customer services when buying the ticket. In the call, he was assured he wouldn’t be on a Max.

Williams and Kennedy say they’ve had similar experiences with their planes switched to a Max last minute.

Stumo thinks it’s not easy for consumers to know if they’re on a Max. Michael Stumo, Samya and Torleif’s father, wants the aircraft type to be “clearly displayed” during the booking process.

After the January 5 incident, Alaska and United issued waivers for passengers unwilling to fly the Max. These have expired, but Alaska says concerned passengers can be rebooked for free by calling reservations.

“We believe all our planes are safe,” they said.

United’s representative mentioned, “Most tickets have no extra fees for changes. We’re happy to help customers with concerns and find a solution that works for them.”

Pierson’s Foundation for Aviation Safety, formed in 2023 to keep an eye on aviation and its regulators, added a webpage in February. It guides passengers hesitant about flying on a specific plane, explaining how to check and change flights at the airport.

Pierson receives many questions about the safety of flying the Max from the public.

A former Boeing worker, Pierson, criticized the company for a flawed production line. In 2018, he warned Boeing about the risk of cutting corners due to pressure, predicting it could lead to tragedy.

Despite the Max flying again, its future is uncertain. The FAA limited new plane production and is investigating Boeing’s quality system. It is also reviewing employee training, increasing onsite inspections, and scrutinizing how Boeing handles unfinished work from suppliers.

The NTSB investigation into the Alaska incident is ongoing. A preliminary report does not blame Boeing, with the final report potentially taking a year or more.

Stumo, alarmed by the Alaska incident, wants Boeing to hire experts in complex manufacturing. Boeing claims it invested heavily in workforce growth and quality improvement.

Stumo insists on urgent change, stating, “The first crash shouldn’t have happened. The second, they knew about it – it absolutely shouldn’t have happened. We want no third crash and Boeing transformed into the superior aviation engineering company it was.”


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