EVERY AIRLINE DEATH is tragic but the recent Ethiopian Airlines crash has quickly turned from a local accident to something with far- reaching global ramifications.
This is the second time in five months that a Boeing 737 Max 8 jet has crashed after the Indonesian Lion Air crash last year. There are certain similarities between the two. Both involved jets less than four months old; both occurred within minutes of take-off in generally clear weather conditions.
The entire aviation industry is now spooked.
Boeing’s stock prices have plummeted. Several countries soon grounded the jets, from Europe to China. India followed later. (SpiceJet has apparently 13 of these aircraft, Jet Airways has five but they were grounded earlier for non-payment of dues.) Boeing has now said it would recall all 371 of the fleet.
The 737 Max 8 was Boeing’s answer to Airbus’ A320 Neo. It was an upgrade of its previous iteration, and was supposed to be more fuel efficient, less expensive to maintain, and could fly further and cram in more passengers than its previous iterations. According to the science writer Jeff Wise in Slate, Boeing swapped out the engines of the previous iteration of the 737 for new models. ‘In order to accommodate the engine’s larger diameter, Boeing engineers had to move the point where the plane attaches to the wing. This, in turn, affected the way the plane handled. Most alarmingly, it left the plane with a tendency to pitch up… To prevent this, Boeing added a new autopilot system that would pitch the nose down if it looked like it was getting too high,’ he writes. According to a preliminary report, Wise claims, it was this system that apparently led to the Lion Air crash.
In the long run, Boeing may come out of this disaster. The company is too big to global aviation to fail. More than 5,000 of the new Max planes (most of them Max 8s) have already been ordered. It is not as though airline companies have other options. Airbus has its own schedules to meet to be able to take up such a large order.
But Boeing’s public image is in a shambles. People have an irrational fear of dying in an aircraft crash. The odds of dying in such a scenario—as several statistics show—are minimal. Last year for instance, there were 500 estimated deaths in passenger airline crashes (this includes the Lion Air crash). That is still around one fatal crash for every three million flights. Even in the case of this particular jet, only two aircraft among 350 of them flying an average of 3.5 trips every day since 2017, led to a crash. The percentage is still minuscule.
Aircraft are boringly safe. There’s a much higher probability from dying in a road or train accident. But that’s not how people calculate risk. We will worry if the aircraft we are travelling on could crash, yet think little of driving a car without airbags.
Many Americans are believed to have switched from flying to driving, for instance, in the months after the 9/11 strikes. Airline passenger-miles reportedly fell between 12 per cent and 20 per cent while road use surged. According to the German academic Gerd Gigerenzer, who specialises in risk study, this caused an additional road death toll of 1,595 deaths in the US a year after 9/11. ‘People jump from the frying pan into the fire,’ he told The Guardian. ‘We have an evolutionary tendency to fear situations in which many people die at one time. This is likely a holdover from when we lived in small groups, where the death of a small part of the group could place the lives of everyone else in jeopardy.’
It will be an uphill task for Boeing to regain trust. It will need to overcome the psychological hurdle of passengers. Even if the Max 8 jets are cleared, if people begin to fear the aircraft and book flights according to the model of the plane, Boeing will have a massive problem to overcome.