When the 737 MAX Returns, Will Anxious Fliers Accept It?

What will they do about their imagination of being on a doomed plane?

Posted Jul 06, 2020

Flight re-testing of the 737 MAX has just been completed. Once the FAA has given the MAX it's blessing, how are anxious fliers going to feel about it? 

In the movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman's character would fly only on Qantas. Qantas, he said, never crashed. The idea of being on an airline that had never crashed didn't bother him. But, when thinking about a specific crash, anxious fliers are impacted by two troubling thoughts.

  1. "When those people got on that plane, they didn't expect it to crash." The unspoken implication is, they should have expected it to crash. This implication justifies phobic thinking that people who expect to arrive safely are foolish.
  2. "It's horrible to imagine what it must have felt like to those people on that plane, knowing they were about to die." The anxious flier imagines a state of panic. So flying needs to be avoided to avoid panic.

These thoughts present the MAX with a public relations problem. Its status as a plane that has never crashed is gone. Not only that, but the MAX has been victimized by the media. Clickbait articles claimed flaws caused the MAX to plunge uncontrollably into the sea. Pilots and other aviation experts pointed out that the crashes were due to poor maintenance and inadequate piloting. But sensationalism dominated which continued to paint the MAX as so flawed that no pilot could control it.

Boeing attempted to enlighten the public by giving several regular airline pilots the MCAS problem in a flight simulator. Every pilot dealt with it easily. The media's response was that the pilots handled the problem because they knew it was coming. But, any pilot who has been properly trained to fly any Boeing — not just a 737 — would recognize the malfunction instantly and correct it in a matter of seconds whether they knew it was coming or not. This is because properly trained Boeing pilots have done the procedure repeatedly in the simulator.

Since anxious fliers can't turn off their imagination, the idea that the MAX was flawed, but now is fixed, will not work. The idea of a fix is too abstract to keep images of the plane plunging out of the mind. A smarter move would be to rename the MAX.

There is another approach, but it would take a massive PR campaign. It would inform the public about the two different worlds in aviation. 

  • In the developed world, aviation standards are high. Maintenence is done properly and pilots are well-trained. There has never been a crash of a 737 MAX in the U.S. Canada, Mexico, South America Japan, Australia, or the E.U. Not only were there no crashes, no airline in the developed world experienced a malfunction of the MAX's MCAS system.
  • In the developing world, aviation standards are inconsistent. Some airlines — competing to outgrow other airlines and dominate the market — offer unrealistically low fares that make it impossible to meet the safety standards people in the developed world take for granted. Low pay — and at some airlines no pay at all for copilots — does not attract qualified pilots. Pilots with little experience join these airlines in hopes of building up enough flying time to be hired by a more legitimate airline. Low fares also mean these pilots may receive so little training that they are not able to fly an airliner safely.

A case in point is the July 6, 2013 crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco on a beautiful sunny day. The electronic guidance signals used for an automatic landing was shut down, and the pilots were so unskilled that they could not do what any amateur pilot can do: Fly the plane by hand.

More recently there is the May 22nd crash in Karachi — not of a Boeing — but of an Airbus. The performance of the pilots boggles the mind. They attempted to land around 80 miles per hour too fast, three times too steep, and without putting the landing gear down. Warnings by air traffic control to break off the landing were ignored. So were warnings by the plane's safety systems that the gear was not down. The plane made contact with the runway on the engine pods. Marks show the engine pods scraped down the runway for half a mile. Instead of simply letting the plane slide to a halt, the pilots went back in the air to attempt another landing, presumably with the gear down. But damage to the engines caused the engines to fail, and the plane crashed short of the runway.

An investigation following the accident led to the discovery that approximately 150 Pakistan International Airlines pilots were flying with fake pilot's licenses. Here's the link to that news. 

If the MAX is not renamed, such as to the 737-1000, for anxious fliers to return to the MAX, they will need to know that — like Qantas has never crashed anywhere in the world — the MAX has never crashed in the developed world.

  • Fliers will need to understand that well-meaning reporters were misled and published incorrect information;
  • They will need to recognize unscrupulous reporters and editors published sensationalized misinformation as click-bait, and
  • When operating in the U.S. and in other developed countries, there was nothing about the MAX that needed fixing.

Where aviation standards are high, pilots receive simulator training in which problems that might arise during a flight are dealt with hands-on. Examples are engine failure during takeoff, engine fire, hydraulic leaks, electrical failures of various kinds, and so forth. One problem practiced in the simulator is uncommanded operation of the stabilizer trim. In other words, the stabilizer is moving and should not be moving. The procedure for correcting this problem was established 70 years ago when the 707 came into service.

The MCAS malfunction at Lion Air took place on five flights in a row.

  • On the first three flights, the pilots were skillful enough to correct the problem. After landing, they reported the problem to maintenance. In each case, maintenance cleared the plane for flight without fixing the problem.
  • On the fourth flight, the pilots at the controls didn't know what to do, but a pilot from another airline in the cockpit "jumpseat" coached the pilots at the controls through the procedure to correct the problem. The fact that a third pilot could coach pilots at the controls through the problem lays bare the lie that the MAX could become quickly uncontrollable in spite of anything a pilot could do to control it. They also reported the problem to maintenance. Maintenance again claimed the problem had been taken care of and cleared the plane for flight.
  • On the fifth flight, the problem again developed. The pilots did not know what to do. Though they were supposed to have memorized the procedure, they didn't even know the procedure existed. There was no jumpseat rider to help them out. They crashed.

I have the narrow-minded view that pilots are supposed to be able to fly, and even if the airline they fly for doesn't provide adequate training, they still are responsible for reading the manual and for memorizing the steps of the emergency procedures.

If they lack basic flying skills, or do not know their procedures, and crash a plane, it is not the manufacturer's fault. It is not the manufacturer's fault when something goes wrong with a plane due to shoddy maintenance.

Planes can be equipped so they can fly as drones do. So, why are pilots on a plane anyway? It is because mechanical problems arise, and when they do, the pilots are there to deal with the problem. If planes were perfect, planes wouldn't need pilots. But they aren't perfect. We don't know how to produce a plane that cannot develop a problem. It is the pilot's job to know how to deal with problems and deal with them when they occur. If the pilots don't deal with a problem they are required to know how to handle, they should be held responsible.

If there were a 737, a 747, a 757, a 767, a 777, and a 787 sitting there on the tarmac and I could choose which to fly as a pilot, I would choose the 757 because it is so responsive to control inputs. When I flew it, most of the time the landings were so smooth the passengers didn't know we were on the ground.

If I were to choose one for passenger comfort, I would choose the 787 because the pressurization system makes it feel like you are not at high altitude during cruise.

If I were to choose one for safety, it wouldn't matter. And if the 737 was a 737 NEO or a 737 MAX, I wouldn't care. And if there were two 737 MAX airliners there, one with the original MCAS and one with the newly redesigned MCAS, I wouldn't care which I flew on.