Is it still safe to fly with Boeing? Everything you need to know after a string of high-profile incidents

Does ‘if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going’ ring true anymore? The Independent’s travel correspondent Simon Calder examines the problem-hit company

Tuesday 18 June 2024 15:34
Boeing 737 Max planes grounded in 2020
Boeing 737 Max planes grounded in 2020 (David Ryder/Getty Images)

Air safety 2023: Accidents and fatalities at record low” – that was the headline for the first article I wrote this year.

Only two fatal accidents had occurred during the previous 12 months. Both of them involved propeller aircraft on domestic flights. Each of the 86 deaths was a tragedy, but for comparison the same number of fatalities occurs in an average of 35 minutes on the world’s roads.

Two dramatic events early in the new year actually emphasised the extraordinary degree of safety built into modern jet aircraft. On 2 January an Airbus A350 landing at Tokyo Haneda airport burst into flames after striking a coastguard jet that had strayed onto the runway. While five aboard the smaller plane died, all 379 people aboard the Japan Airlines passenger jet successfully evacuated.

Three days later, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max took off from Portland, Oregon on a routine flight to Ontario in California. The plane, a Boeing 737 Max 9, climbed above 16,000 feet – higher than the summit of Mont Blanc. Suddenly, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, “the left mid exit door plug departed the airplane”.

An employee of the National Transportation Safety Board examines the stricken Alaska Airlines plane
An employee of the National Transportation Safety Board examines the stricken Alaska Airlines plane (NTSB/AFP via Getty Images)

Miraculously, while various passengers’ possessions also departed the airplane, all 177 passengers and crew remained aboard flight AS1282 until the aircraft landed back at Portland.

These terrifying incidents rest very differently in the minds of the travelling public. The Tokyo event revealed the professionalism of the Japan Airlines crew and the safety features of the latest Airbus jet.

But the Portland incident shone a light on shortcomings in the way Boeing builds its planes. All Boeing 737 Max 9s with the same door plug arrangement were grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Inspections revealed “loose hardware” and “bolts that needed additional tightening” on in-service aircraft.

‘We have to be better’

Although they are flying again, the deepening investigation has revealed some shocking shortcomings about Boeing’s manufacturing and inspection processes.

“We are not where we need to be,” said Stan Deal, then president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, 10 days after the Alaska Airlines scare. “To that end, we are taking immediate actions to bolster quality assurance and controls across our factories.”

Two weeks later, with the planes allowed back in the skies, he apologised for what he called the “quality escape” and said: “Our long-term focus is on improving our quality so that we can regain the confidence of our customers, our regulator and the flying public.

“We have to be better. We have to deliver perfect airplanes each and every time.”

Recent events have led to big changes in the top roles at Boeing
Recent events have led to big changes in the top roles at Boeing (Getty Images)

The trouble is, the more the flying public finds out about practices at Boeing, the more anxious passengers may fret. Early in February, Mr Deal pledged to end “traveled work” – whereby components with known flaws were allowed on the production line, to be fixed as the plane was assembled. Many people were shocked that they had ever been allowed.

The FAA has slowed the planned production rate of Boeing 737 Max jets, which is feeding into higher fares and less choice for UK passengers; Ryanair is cutting back its summer schedule due to slow deliveries of the plane.

Attention has now spreading to other aircraft – notably the 787 “Dreamliner”, a long-haul favourite with many airlines and passengers. A whistleblower, engineer Sam Salehpour, said excessive force was applied to fit panels together on the 787 assembly line – raising the risk of fatigue that could cause it to break apart.

Boeing robustly rejected his claims during a long media briefing.

Shocking and needless tragedies

The planemaker finds itself in the extremely uncomfortable position of prospective passengers – aided by the media – feeling hypersensitive about almost any incident involving a Boeing aircraft.

In April, for example, an Air Canada Boeing 737 Max flying from Mexico City to Vancouver made a routine emergency landing (yes, there is such a thing, and they are common) in Boise, Idaho. A warning light suggested a possible cargo hold problem. Such an event would probably have gone unreported had an Airbus been involved. But so deep is interest in Boeing, that any story with its name attached is guaranteed prominence.

On 9 May two further incidents involving 737s occured. A 30-year-old plane left the runway after aborting take-off due to a hydraulic failure, and caught fire in Dakar, Senegal. Some passengers and crew were injured in the evacuation of the Transair jet.

At Gazipasa airport in southern Turkey, a Corendon Airlines Boeing 737-800 burst a tyre on landing. The pilots ordered an emergency evacuation.

Stan Deal need no longer feel at the mercy of a feverish media. On 25 March he retired immediately, and was replaced by Stephanie Pope. On the same day, the CEO of Boeing, Dave Calhoun and the company’s chair, Larry Kellner, said they would leave by the end of the year.

Mr Calhoun will have been at the top for less than five years. He took up the role in 2020 after the previous CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, left the company. Then, as now, the Boeing 737 Max was at the centre of a storm about safety. But it was an even darker time for the company, with evidence emerging of catastrophic decisions at Boeing that led to the loss of 346 lives.

Dave Calhoun, who will be leaving his job as Boeing CEO at the end of 2024
Dave Calhoun, who will be leaving his job as Boeing CEO at the end of 2024 (The Associated Press)

The Boeing 737, first launched in 1967, is the world’s most successful aircraft. More than 11,000 have been delivered. But the Max 8 version was involved in two shocking and needless tragedies.

On 29 October 2018, a faulty sensor triggered an anti-stall system that caused Lion Air flight 610 to crash shortly after take-off from Jakarta. All 189 passengers and crew died.

Less than six months later, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 from Addis Ababa to Nairobi was lost, along with 157 lives, in similar circumstances. After the second crash, it emerged that Boeing had installed software that had the power to defy pilots and force the aircraft to plunge to the ground while pilots struggled in vain for control. All Boeing 737 Max aircraft were grounded for 20 months while safety enhancements were made.

The plane re-entered service in December 2020 – including at Ryanair, which is by far the biggest European customer for the Max. The aircraft is at the heart of its plans to dominate the continent’s skies. Yet in January the airline’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, revealed the airline had complained loudly about faults on newly delivered Boeing 737 Max aircraft – including a spanner found under the floor on one jet.

“We do a 48-hour check on every aircraft when it’s delivered into Dublin,” he told The Independent. “Coming out of Covid, we were taking aircraft deliveries and finding lots of small defects and things not fitted correctly.

“It is not acceptable that aircraft get delivered at less than 100 per cent.”

A bouquet of flowers beside debris at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019
A bouquet of flowers beside debris at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019 (Getty Images)

Yet Mr O’Leary has been supportive of Boeing’s soon-to-be-outgoing CEO, Dave Calhoun, and is hungry for more of his aircraft. So much so, that after United Airlines warned it might not take up its order for 737 Max 10s, the Ryanair boss said that he would gladly buy them instead.

Passenger confidence

How confident, though, can passengers be after the succession of revelations about the Max programme? Some passengers used to vow, “if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going”. That rings hollow now.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the McDonnell Douglas DC10 jet was involved in a series of crashes, some due to design flaws. As passengers actively chose airlines that did not have the plane in their fleet, orders for the DC10 dried up.

Yet four decades on, aviation is far safer – and, it appears, passengers are unconcerned about the Max variant of the 737. When it reentered service, many airlines offered the option for worried travellers to switch to other aircraft free of charge. There were almost no takers.

Even after the Alaska Airlines episode, Michael O’Leary said there had been “no pushback” from passengers concerned about flying on Ryanair’s all-Boeing 737 fleet.

It is possible that some potential customers have quietly moved to airlines that use only Airbus A320 series jets for short-haul flights – such as British Airways, easyJet and Wizz Air.

But for anyone who cares to check the stats: Ryanair is the safest airline in the world in terms of the number of passengers carried without a single fatal accident. The only aircraft type it flies? The Boeing 737.

Which airlines use the Boeing 737?

Top 10 operators of all versions of the aircraft

  1. Southwest 209
  2. United 163
  3. Ryanair 146
  4. American Airlines 59
  5. Flydubai 57
  6. Alaska Airlines 52
  7. Tui 42
  8. Air Canada 40
  9. Copa (Panama) 29
  10. Gol (Brazil) 27


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