2 accidents, 346 dead. When the Boeing 737 Max was grounded by the FAA in early 2019, many swore never to fly on it again. In December 2020, after nearly 2 years of regulatory battles, recalls, and pilot re-trainings, the plane was re-approved to fly once again. But, with many concerns about the model’s safety still present with flyers, airlines have had to balance a fine line between easing passenger concerns without misleading them completely.
The 737 Max and its issues
The 737 Max was first introduced in 2016 as an evolution of Boeing’s 737, the most popular aircraft type ever. Airlines had requested a larger, more fuel-efficient engine for the aircraft type, but the engine Boeing wanted to use did not fit under the wing of the 737 body. In hopes of avoiding changing the body, which would mean requiring pilots to get recertified, the company decided to reposition the engine to be offset forward on the wing, allowing them to raise it and fit the engine under the wing. Unfortunately, repositioning the engine meant that the aircraft had a different “feel” to pilots, which, again, would require them to get recertified. Rather than going through the recertification process, Boeing created MCAS(Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), a software that would artificially make the plane fly more like a regular 737. However, this software largely used data from a single sensor, which was prone to malfunction.
And that’s exactly what happened, 2 major accidents — Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian airlines flight — came as a result of technical issues in the MCAS system, and the aircraft type was subsequently grounded in March 2019.
Why was it recertified? Is it safe?The 737 max was re-certified in November 2020 after multiple layers of investigation, software fixes by Boeing, mechanical fixes, and a new requirement for all 737 max pilots to receive dedicated simulator training. According to the FAA and multiple aviation experts, the recertified 737 Max is incredibly safe, both because of the sheer amount of checks the aircraft had to go through, and the fact that aviation as a whole is generally incredibly safe.
This article will be based on a Copa Airlines flight, from PTY(Panama City) to GRU (São Paulo, Brazil).
When booking, the Copa Airlines website made it somewhat clear that I was flying on the 737 Max. The website provided us with an option to click on a tab to see what airplane we would be flying, however, had we not clicked on that, we would not have known we were on this plane type. In comparison, other airlines were more proactive with alerting passengers that they would be flying in a 737 Max. For example, all four U.S. airlines operating the type — United, American, Alaska, and Southwest — display the plane type in bold font during booking. The printed boarding pass also does not display the aircraft type, though this is routine for flights.
At the airport, the gate agents gave no indication whatsoever that we would be flying in a 737 Max. This is unlike some U.S. airlines, such as American and Alaska, who announce the aircraft type multiple times and even allow wary passengers to rebook themselves onto another flight at the gate free of charge. However, other U.S. airlines, such as United and Alaska, like Copa, do not announce the aircraft type at the gate.
At the same time, passengers with a keen eye could still look at the plane, which has the words “737 Max 8” or “737 Max 9” painted on it (this is standard between airlines). One could also recognize the aircraft type by its unique double winglet.