SINGAPORE: Just as finger pointing following the crash of Lion Air flight JT610 last October had been commonplace, in the days after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302, which, like Lion Air JT610, was flown by a Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, a global debate has erupted among air safety regulators, airlines, pilots, flight attendants and passengers over whether the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft is safe.
Even politicians have joined the debate, with President Donald J Trump questioning via Twitter the reliance on complex cockpit software over the judgment of pilots.
President Trump is usually an enthusiastic supporter of Boeing’s global aircraft sales (having recently attended a contract signing ceremony in Hanoi that included the Boeing 737 MAX 8), though in this case he, without a doubt, reflected the concerns of air travelers worldwide.
As with JT610, speculation has focused on the role played by the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) and whether pilots have sufficient knowledge about this advanced software system.
In the months after the JT610 crash, changes announced by Boeing include software enhancements and updates to the MCAS displays, operation manuals and crew training that seek to reduce the potential for conflict between pilot action, data displayed in the cockpit and automated software responses.
Amid the rush to temporary suspend the Boeing 737 MAX 8, passengers can also make decisions to reduce their safety risks.
THE RUSH TO SUSPEND THE 737-800 MAX
Air travel is generally safe, with fatal accidents per kilometre flown continuing to rapidly fall as we fly more and aircraft hardware and software design continues to improve.
Unlike Lion Air, which had a well-publicised recent history of fatal and non-fatal incidents that also called into question Indonesia’s aircraft safety regulatory regime, Ethiopian Airlines has had a strong track record.
A member of the Star Alliance group, which includes big names like Lufthansa, United and Singapore Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, it had one fatal crash of a 737 in 2010 and the investigation resulted in disputed findings. Its safety record has since improved.
Yet Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Oman and the United Kingdom, along with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, and more have imposed temporary bans on 737 MAX 8 flying within their countries.
Airlines that have imposed bans on flying the 737 MAX 8 in their fleet include Gol Airways, Cayman Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, Jet Airways, Aeromexico, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Turkish Airlines, Eastar Jet, Smartwings and LOT.
Along with Australia, Oman and India, Singapore imposed a more extensive ban, with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) suspending all operations in and out of the country of all variants of the 737 MAX and not just the 737 MAX 8.
PILOT ERROR OR DESIGN FLAW
First deliveries of the 737 MAX 8 aircraft began in 2017, and the aircraft flown by both JT610 and ET302 were delivered within six months prior to crashing.
To put aircraft age and reliability in perspective, on Jan 12, a 38-year-old Boeing 727 flew the final 727 passenger flight, 55 years after the 727’s introduction to passenger service.
The importance of the 737 MAX 8 to Boeing as well as US airlines ensured that following the JT610 crash, the FAA, National Transportation Safety Board, Boeing and pilots unions collaborated on appropriate measures to address concerns about the MCAS in a relatively transparent manner.
A similar response is likely in the coming days and weeks as the investigation into ET302 proceeds.
Inquiries I have received about the likely reason behind the crash range from state-sponsored and non-state actor terrorism to cyberwarfare and hackers, but I advise travel and security executives at public and private sector organisations, travel agents and individual travelers to avoid speculation regarding the cause.
More immediately, the CAAS suspension will impact many airlines with operations at Changi Airport. The high regard fellow regulators in Asia have for CAAS makes it possible that other regulators in Asia will also impose a broad suspension on 737 MAX variants.
Disruption to passenger itineraries is likely in the coming days, especially as airlines attempt to re-deploy their fleets to replace the suspended aircraft and it is unknown how quickly each regulator will lift its suspension.
TRAVEL INSURANCE WHEN FLYING ON A 737 MAX 8
It is good practice for passengers to purchase travel insurance before travelling regardless of safety risk. Flight accidents are typically covered under accidental death and disablement clauses, and insurers typically base the premium and exclusion on the destination rather than the airline and aircraft model.
As with any insurance product, prudence dictates inquiring with the insurer about the details prior to purchase or travel.
Also unknown to many fliers is that the Montreal Convention obliges airlines to pay a fixed amount of damages for passenger deaths or injuries that occur on international flights – but this has yet to be ratified by many countries.
Many travel destinations have yet to ratify this treaty, which may allow their airlines to dodge legal liability for accidents, leaving families and loved ones of accident victims without any compensation.
Still, subject to an airline’s financial situation in the aftermath of a crash, compensation is often paid without admission of liability so as to settle with the victims or their families, and preserve the airline’s reputation.
Passengers should check if the airline chosen belongs to a country that has ratified the Convention, or otherwise ensure that the airline or country has policies in place to compensate families and loved ones of passengers in the event of an accident.
AIRLINE AND AIRCRAFT CHOICE IS ALSO A PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
Given the availability of tools to check on the model of aircraft and the variety of airlines and routes available to choose from for travel between any two given destinations, passengers must also be responsible for their travel decisions.
Not all countries and airlines have grounded the 737 MAX 8 or other 737 MAX variants, but passengers can manage their safety concerns by assessing risk based on available information combined with the ongoing regulatory and airline announcements.
Airlines announce flight schedules and aircraft arrangements long in advance, and many airline and travel websites provide aircraft model information for specific flights especially on those websites that offer the option to select seats (especially as airlines increasingly charge seat selection fees).
Passengers flying on a 737 MAX 8 can also inquire as to the status of the software updates and additional pilot training, which will be mandated by the US FAA and airlines will publicly report compliance with.
However, passengers should also note that airlines are usually not required to inform passengers in the event of changes to the aircraft model. Even after purchasing tickets, passengers should periodically monitor their flight status by logging into the airline’s website.
Although passengers cannot eliminate the risk of aircraft incidents, they should, at a minimum, make the same effort to familiarise themselves with airline and aircraft developments to the same extent they would inquire about public safety at their destination.
Ross Darrell Feingold is director for business development at SafePro Group, a global security and protection specialist firm.