You’ve probably seen some scary headlines in the past week about a plane that crashed in Ethiopia, killing all on board, and how that prompted governments around the world to ground the aircraft model that was involved. Wednesday, Canada and the United States were two of the last Western countries to ban Boeing 737 Max 8s (and Max 9s in the U.S.) in their airspace until further investigation.
What’s going on?
On Sunday — in totally clear weather — a Boeing 737 Max 8 took off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but a few minutes into the flight the aircraft’s “unstable” speed presumably prompted the pilot to send out a distress signal and request to return to the airport. Shortly after the request, the plane lost contact with the ground and crash-landed, killing at least 157 people from 35 countries, including several from Canada.
The recent crash comes just eight months after the same type of plane crashed in Indonesia, killing all 189 people on board. Two nearly identical fatal incidents like these are cause for suspicion, at least until further investigation can be done. In response, 50 countries have either banned or grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 until more is known about the crashes and what caused them.
What do we know?
The Boeing 737 Max 8 is a popular aircraft because of its large, comfortable cabin size and efficient engines. The problem most likely responsible for the two crashes — the investigation into both are still ongoing — is an automatic feature that is meant to make stabilization easier for pilots, but on these two occasions could have been deadly.
As noted in this New York Times deep dive, the Max 8s have software that is meant to auto-adjust the plane’s nose if it detects that the aircraft is ascending at a dangerous angle. If the system starts to do that, there is a step-by-step emergency procedure pilots have been trained in to counteract it and right the plane — the problem is that these steps need to be performed quickly or else the system will force the nose down too far, like investigators suspect happened in these two cases.
Boeing argues that the pilots in the two plane crashes involving their jets should have known and carried out these emergency procedures to right the planes. However, the question remains whether they had enough time to react accordingly or even knew it was the system that was causing the plane to angle down, as the company failed to inform pilots and offer additional training after a modification to the corrective software changed the way it operates. The company maintains that regardless of the software, the pilots should have reacted to the emergency in the same way.
While this is currently the prevailing theory, Canadian Transportation Minister Marc Garneau warned against making assumptions about causation before we have all the data.
“I would repeat once again that this is not the proof that this is the same root problem,” he said at a press conference. “It could be something else.”
As a result of new data we received this morning, on the advice of experts, and as a precautionary measure, I am issuing a restriction of commercial passenger flights from any air operator of the Boeing 737 Max 8 & 9 aircraft 🇨🇦 https://t.co/KooOlWfBfO pic.twitter.com/6mjm6HsoCp
— Marc Garneau (@MarcGarneau) March 13, 2019
What that means for you
With the sudden banning of the Boeing 737 Max 8 (and Max 9, in some cases), many airlines have been left scrambling to fulfill flights that were scheduled on those aircraft. In Canada, Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing in particular were affected, with the airlines rescheduling and cancelling hundreds of flights on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Flights have been rescheduled hours or even a full day later or rerouted with additional stop-overs. Others have been completely cancelled, but passengers are to be offered compensation and permitted to re-book their flights without added fees.
Our #B737MAX flights are suspended following Transport Canada’s directive to close Canadian airspace to this aircraft. We’re working to get affected customers home and our flexible rebooking policy is in place. More: https://t.co/AFpZFGl1jj
— Air Canada (@AirCanada) March 13, 2019
As far as aircraft go, you shouldn’t be concerned about ending up on one of these planes unless you are traveling to or from a country that has not banned the Boeing 737 Max 8 from their airspace (other models in the 737 series like the Boeing 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900 are different).
If you’re concerned about the flight you’re on, SeatGuru allows you to look up the type of plane you’re scheduled to fly on beforehand.