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Has the Boeing 737 MAXed out its chances for passenger confidence?

Updated: Mar 12, 2019

Barely five months ago, about two weeks before Ethiopian Airlines took delivery of five brand new Boeing 737 Max 8s, the world was shocked to hear the sad news of the fatal Lion Air crash in which a Boeing 737 MAX 8 plane suddenly plummeted into the Java Sea, Indonesia, killing all 189 people on board. Five months later, the world is thrown into shock again with the loss of another Boeing 737 MAX 8 belonging to Ethiopian Airlines.

Aviation experts, Chinese regulators, and concerned passengers have expressed concerns at the fact that the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes involved models that had been in service for only a short time. The new Boeing 737 MAX which only made its first delivery in 2017 has now recorded its second fatal accident in less than 6 months, killing a total of 346 people. Fears about the future of Boeing’s 737 MAX airliner following a second fatal crash have wiped more than $25 billion off the company’s market value.

All 189 people on board were killed in the Lion Air flight 610 crash.

In the case of the Lion Air crash, Indonesian investigators have yet to establish conclusions about the accident but have so far found that the aircraft started experiencing flight-control problems within 2 minutes of becoming airborne, with fluctuating altitude and automatic nose-down trimming as it attempted to climb to its cruise level. Investigators determined that the jet had suffered a number of airspeed and altitude indication problems over the three days prior to the crash, and that the ill-fated flight had shown up inconsistencies with the aircraft’s angle-of-attack sensor readings. Within a few days of the accident Boeing issued a notification to 737 MAX operators pointing out that, in manual flight, erroneous angle-of-attack data could cause the pitch-trim system to trim the horizontal stabiliser nose-down unless the crew intervened to activate stabiliser trim cut-out switches.

There is no immediate evidence that the Ethiopian aircraft, operating flight ET302 to Nairobi on 10 March, suffered similar problems to the Lion Air jet, although it also came down shortly into its initial climb, having taken off some 6min earlier from Addis Ababa’s runway 07R. Meteorological data from Addis Ababa around the time of the accident indicates good visibility and no adverse weather conditions.

Both crashes are still under investigation and there is no strong evidence of a link between the two, but similarities between the incidents have prompted caution among some aviation authorities and airlines. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are approximately 350 Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft in operation worldwide, being flown by 54 operators.

Rescue team collect remains of bodies amid debris at the crash site of Ethiopia Airlines near

Initially, following the Lion Air crash, Boeing said it is “confident in the safety of the 737 MAX” insisting airplane went through thousands of hours of tests & evaluations and certifications. In the wake of this disaster, it is unlikely their standpoint will remain the same as one accident could be classified as a coincidence but two, especially within a short space of time, could be easily classified as a repeat problem.

The widely unanswered question now remains "Are the 737 MAXs still safe to fly?"....

Travellers can check the full list of airlines that fly the plane on the Boeing website.