Should all the Boeing 737 Max 8s be grounded?

We’re still waiting for a definitive cause for the loss of two Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft in the past five months, including the latest one in Ethiopia. The problem is that such investigations tend to be extremely thorough, involving the retrieval and reconstruction of much of the plane. That can take a very long time, and it’s a job worth doing in the long-term interest of safety. But what should the various airlines around the world (including in the United States) do about it in the meantime? It’s a question that has industry experts and many passengers quite nervous. (Associated Press)

Ethiopian Airlines has grounded all of its Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft as “an extra safety precaution” following the crash of one of its planes in which 157 people were killed, a spokesman said Monday, as Ethiopia marked a day of mourning and the plane’s damaged “black box” of data was found.

Although it wasn’t yet known what caused the crash of the new plane in clear weather outside Addis Ababa on Sunday, the airline decided to ground its remaining four 737 Max 8s until further notice, spokesman Asrat Begashaw said. Ethiopian Airlines had been using five of the planes and awaiting delivery of 25 more.

Overseas, airlines are grounding the Max 8 fleet, but in the United States, the response hasn’t been as fast or as decisive. Many of the planes are still scheduled to fly their regular routes. Should you be concerned? As it turns out, the Max 8s have been in service since 2017. There are approximately 350 in operation around the world., conducting multiple flights per day, so the planes have completed literally hundreds of thousands of commercial flights. Out of all of those, two have crashed. But the similarities of the two crashes may give passengers justifiable concerns, at least until the cause of the tragedies is definitively identified and corrective actions if required, are completed.

What can you do in the meantime? The New York Times has a very good article providing much of what you need to know if you have concerns. Some of the more basic information is easy to obtain and might help you make a decision.

First of all, Southwest Airlines has 34 Max 8s in operation and Air Canada and American Airlines have 24 each. Neither United or Delta fly the Max 8 (though United has some Max 9s) so if you are flying on those two airlines you shouldn’t have to worry.

If you book a flight on Southwest, American or Air Canada and arrive at the airport to find that you’re booked on a Max 8, you can ask to be switched to another flight, but none of these airlines are guaranteeing that you’ll have your ticket money refunded or transferred to another flight. That might leave you stuck for a very expensive ticket that you don’t use. But if you book your flights in advance using any of their online features, you can usually find the model plane you’ll be flying on through the purchasing app. If you go to the seat selection screen for most of them, it will show the seating layout and include the plane model. That might help you avoid the Max 8s for now.

The question I have here is why these three airlines aren’t following suit and grounding the Max 8s for the time being. Yes, it would likely cost them some money and lead to scheduling challenges, but is the risk worth it? As I noted above, the Max 8s have completed a staggering number of flights without incident, but if one of them goes down now after all this publicity, the airline is going to be facing years worth of hugely expensive lawsuits from the families of the crash victims.

In the end, I suppose the choice is going to be left up to you. If you’re that worried about it, either don’t fly (if that’s an option), take one of the airlines that don’t use the Max 8, or carefully check in advance to see what model plane you’ll be flying on. Unfortunately, that last option may not be 100% foolproof because last minute changes to flights can and do happen. Just something to keep in mind as you make your travel plans.