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The Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes and controversy, explained

A new Boeing model has crashed twice in five months. The whole world is on edge.

An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 arrives from Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport to Miami International Airport on March 12, 2019.
An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 arrives from Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport to Miami International Airport on March 12, 2019.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The second deadly crash of a Boeing 737 Max model airplane within months of the first has put flyers around the world on edge. Multiple countries have grounded the planes as a result, including, after coming under pressure, the United States.

Here’s what happened: On Sunday, March 10, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Nairobi, Kenya, faltered and crashed soon after taking off, killing all 157 people on board. The incident was, of course, devastating. But making it even more disturbing is that it happened just months after a Lion Air flight taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia, crashed in October, killing all 189 passengers.

The flights were the exact same model of planes, Boeing 737 Max.

The second crash over the weekend sent shock waves across the world, not only because the victims came from 35 countries but also because multiples of the same such jets are being used globally. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are a total of 387 Boeing 737 Max models operating, including 74 in the United States.

The second fatal crash of a 737 Max 8 jet in less than six months has raised questions about whether such planes are any longer safe to fly. Multiple countries have grounded the planes since Sunday, including Brazil, China, and India. The European Union on Tuesday suspended all flight operations of Boeing Model 737 Max 8 and 737 Max 9 in Europe, and on Wednesday, Canada and the US followed suit.

The US was especially slow to act. According to NPR, three airlines fly 737 Max planes in the country: American, Southwest, and United. The FAA initially confirmed the “continued airworthiness” of the planes. But on Wednesday, President Trump issued an emergency order to ground the planes, which the FAA said would remain in place “pending further examination, including examination of information from the aircraft’s flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders.”

Two crashes in less than six months

On Sunday, all 157 people on the Ethiopian Airlines flight were killed after the plane lost contact with the control tower and crashed minutes after takeoff. The passengers on the plane came from more than 30 countries, and the United Nations confirmed that at least 22 staff members died in the accident.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 model of the Ethiopian Airlines flight is the same model of the Indonesian airline Lion Air Flight 610 that crashed in October, killing all 189 people on board. In November, investigators determined in an initial probe that pilots were engaged in what CNN described as a “futile tug-of-war with the plane’s automatic systems” minutes before the crash. A sensor erroneously reported that the plane was stalling and erroneously sent the plane nose down, and pilots couldn’t override it. Investigators also concluded that the plane was “no longer airworthy” when the crash occurred.

We still don’t know what happened with the Ethiopian Airlines flight, or if the plane crashed for the same reason. An international probe into the accident is underway, including with experts from the United States. Ethiopian Airlines said on Monday that the flight data recorder and cockpit recorder have been recovered. They could help investigators figure out the cause of the incident.

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told CNN on Tuesday that the pilot was “having difficulties with the flight control of the airplane” before the crash.

This has international implications

Two deadly crashes of the same plane model within months has sent ripples around the world. There is broad concern that the jets might not be safe to fly, and calls are growing for them to be grounded until investigators can figure out what’s going on and address the problem, if there is one.

As Shannon Sims explained at the New York Times, the Boeing 737 Max 8, on the market since 2017, has been popular — more than 4,000 such planes were ordered within six months of its launch. Airlines like them because they have good features for passengers, like more legroom, and for the airlines themselves, namely, fuel efficiencies.

But with catastrophic incidents happening close together on a new model of planes, there are a lot of questions about whether they’re safe.

Gregory Wallace at CNN surveyed experts to see what they think. The result: They were split. Former FAA safety inspector David Soucie told Wallace that he’s “never said it’s unsafe to fly a particular model of aircraft, but in this case, I’m going to have to go there.”

He noted that after the Lion Air crash last year, Boeing recommended that pilots take training to make sure they avoided the mistakes the pilot of that plane made, but he didn’t know if the Ethiopian Airlines pilot took that training. “If there was a way for me to know that, then I would most definitely get on that airplane,” he said.

Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, told Wallace it was “premature to ground the fleet” until more information is gathered.

Regardless of what experts say, people are understandably very nervous and afraid to board a Boeing 737 Max 8 flight in the future. Boeing’s stock price has taken a hit as well.

There are a lot of concerns about the plane itself

The accidents have spurred a lot of questions that need answering.

They’ve put scrutiny on the jet model itself, of course. According to CNBC, the October crash raised questions about the plane’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system. In November, Boeing issued a safety bulletin for pilots explaining how to better handle it, but it’s not clear whether that’s been enough.

On Monday, Boeing put out a statement on its work developing a “flight control software enhancement” for the 737 Max and said it plans to implement the change by April. The FAA also said on Monday that it will mandate design enhancements to Boeing’s automated system and signaling by April as well.

Multiple countries have grounded the Boeing 737 Max jets — Vox’s Gaby Del Valle has a more complete explanation on that. China’s Civil Aviation Administration, for example, on Monday announced a temporary ban on the planes, and Indonesia followed suit soon after. As Del Valle laid out, that’s a big deal, because China and Indonesia are two of Boeing’s biggest customers.

Others have since followed suit, including, finally, Canada and the US.

In a statement on Wednesday, Boeing backed the FAA’s decision but stood by the safety of its planes. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the decision was made out of “an abundance of caution” and that the company is doing “everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”

The US airlines initially stuck by Boeing. A Southwest spokesperson told USA Today the company remained “confident in the safety and airworthiness” of its fleet of Boeing aircraft, but it also appears to be helping customers figure out what type of aircraft they’re on.

A spokesperson for American Airlines told Del Valle that the company will “closely monitor the investigation in Ethiopia” but has “full confidence in the aircraft and our crew members.” The airline also tweeted that it’s waiting on an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board to figure out what to do.

Despite the reassurances — or at least calls by many in the industry to wait for facts — the pressure to take action in the US appears to have been too much. Consumer Reports said Tuesday that Southwest and American should have already halted flights and, since they haven’t, the FAA should.

Paul Page, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that the top job at the FAA has been vacant for the past 14 months and airline enforcement fines have dropped significantly. He also noted that the Department of Transportation has been extra friendly to the airline industry under Trump.

Multiple members of Congress called on the FAA to ground Boeing 737 Max 8 flights, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mitt Romney (R-UT), and Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Warren also called on Congress to hold hearings to determine whether President Trump’s administration was protecting Boeing.

This has raised questions about airplane automation. And that’s what Trump wants to focus on.

Sunday’s crash has also deepened concerns about airplane automation.

Konstantin Kakaes laid out what’s going on for the MIT Technology Review:

The 737 Max has bigger engines than the original 737, which make it 14% more fuel efficient than the previous generation. As the trade publication Air Current explains, the position and shape of the new engines changed how the aircraft handles, giving the nose a tendency to tip upward in some situations, which could cause the plane to stall. The new “maneuvering characteristics augmentation system” was designed to counteract that tendency.

Did these more efficient engines — and the changes they necessitated to the airplane’s automation systems — compromise the aircraft’s safety? As sociologist Charles Perrow wrote in his classic 1984 book Normal Accidents, new air-safety technologies don’t always make airplanes safer, even if they work just as well as they are supposed to. Instead of improving safety, innovations can allow airlines “to run greater risks in search of increased performance.”

But because it’s so complex, some pilots may have problems with it, especially if it’s the case that they’re not given all the training and information necessary to maneuver. That appears to have been part of the problem with the Lion Air flight. It’s not yet clear if that’s what happened with the Ethiopian Airlines flight.

The Dallas Morning News reported on Tuesday that pilots have brought multiple complaints about the safety of the Boeing 737 Max 8 to federal authorities, with one captain saying in November that it was “unconscionable” for pilots to fly the plane without training or explicit information about how its systems worked.

President Trump appears eager to lean into that explanation. He fired off a pair of tweets on Tuesday complaining that airplanes are “far too complex.”

The New York Times’s Ken Vogel reported that early on Tuesday — but after the Trump tweets — Muilenburg, the Boeing CEO, talked to Trump on the phone and tried to convince Trump that the Boeing 737 Max planes shouldn’t be grounded in the US. He ultimately did not succeed.

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