The tragic crashes of two Boeing MAX 737s led to the grounding of the plane around the world. Now, a new report from the US government looks at what went wrong - and reveals flaws at Boeing and the US air safety regulator, the FAA. So should we be worried about flight safety? Specialist aviation journalist John Walton breaks down what the report says.

As a rule, air travel is incredibly safe: safer, statistically, than staying home. But it got there through generations of hard work, safety improvement, strong regulation and a dedication to analysing and learning from anything that went wrong.

The 2018 Lion Air and the 2019 Ethiopian Airways crashes of the Boeing 737 MAX killed 346 people and left travelers around the world concerned that flying might not be as safe as they thought.

This week, the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure released a report that outlined the catastrophic flaws in the Boeing 737 MAX, and the equally catastrophic oversight failures at the Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA, which regulates air travel in the US and is the lead regulator for US-designed and -manufactured aircraft). 

The report makes for sobering reading: “Boeing’s design and development of the 737 MAX was marred by technical design failures, lack of transparency with both regulators and customers, and efforts to downplay or disregard concerns about the operation of the aircraft,” says the report. Meanwhile, it highlights that “the FAA’s certification review of Boeing’s 737 MAX was grossly insufficient and that the FAA failed in its duty to identify key safety problems and to ensure that they were adequately addressed during the certification process.”

The report (available online in PDF form) stretches to 238 pages, and it’s a huge amount to digest, including a lot of technical detail. I wouldn’t suggest it for anyone but the most avid of aviation safety buffs. But the basic question many travellers will be asking themselves is this: “should I be concerned about flight safety in the light of this report?”

Interior Of Airplane
Empty seats inside an airplane © Thanakorn Phanthura / EyeEm / Getty Images

Anyone who travels by air should: the company that produces roughly half of the world’s airliners has clearly shown massive and systemic safety problems, has been systematically concealing those problems, and its primary safety regulator hasn’t been doing its job.

It’s pretty clear that there are still huge questions about the 737 MAX, both in terms of the flight control systems and in terms of several other elements of the aircraft’s design that have come to light since the aircraft’s grounding in March of last year. Some of those issues are major and fundamental design problems, but some of the issues are the sort of relatively minor problems that are a comparatively quick and simple fix.

One of the worrying parts of the report is the extent to which problems at Boeing seem to extend beyond the 737 MAX, both to other aircraft like the 787 Dreamliner, and to the company’s wider culture. You may remember that the 787 was grounded for several months in 2013 as the result of onboard lithium-ion batteries catching fire, and over the last few months more problems with the aircraft have been revealed.

It’s also very worrying that the FAA has, as the report puts it in bold and italic type, “failed to ensure the safety of the traveling public”. The report highlights cultural problems, excessive delegation to Boeing, conflicts of interest, undue pressure, poor communication and insufficient rigour in its work.

But at the same time, I wouldn’t have concerns about flight safety on other aircraft at this point. If that seems contradictory, I understand.

John Walton considers airplane safety © Lucky Business / Shutterstock

Here’s what I mean: across aviation, the FAA isn’t the only regulator. Europe’s EASA, Transport Canada, the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau, the Civil Aviation Administration of China, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority and other regulators certify aircraft for use by their own airlines. In the past, this was in essence a rubber stamp of the FAA’s approval. With the revelations about the FAA’s failures, they’re taking a much harder line on both the 737 MAX and wider Boeing problems.

I’ve flown on the 737 MAX. I wouldn’t fly on one again for the moment. And it’s those international regulators’ approval of the MAX — and other Boeing aircraft — that I’ll be waiting for until I get on one again.

John Walton is an international aviation journalist, follow him @thatjohn

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