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The Road I Chose at the Yellow Wood of a 737MAX
Wednesday, March 13, 2019 -- We are, thankfully, out of practice reacting to and understanding plane crashes.
It's been a decade since there has been a crash on U.S. or Canadian soil--the Colgan Air disaster near Buffalo was in February, 2009--and maybe we've been feeling invulnerable. Even when there has been crisis, fate has given us a Captain Sully or a Miracle of Flight 358 in Toronto.
Let us be brutally honest, too. When there has been a crash somewhere else in the world--and there have been more than a few--it's been easy to look away, to blink an eye, shrug a shoulder and ignore them. Somewhere else is somewhere else and there are times when living in the bubble of business travel makes a convenient and remarkably durable emotional shield.
But now there have been two crashes in five months of an important new aircraft--the 737MAX series, which Boeing says has been ordered 5,000 times--and suddenly we're talking about life and death on the road again. The crashes were very far away--and Addis Ababa and Jakarta are about as distant as you can get--but some initial facts are eerily similar. It is easy to be frightened again. In this era of instant experts and social-media screaming, it is easy to be buffaloed into the "everybody says" mindset.
I can only speak for myself. I don't care about what everybody says. I try to pay attention to people smarter than me, people with more experience than me, people with more facts than me.
And these people, at least at the moment, say the Boeing 737MAX aircraft are safe. The pilots who fly it for U.S. carriers say the planes are good to go. The FAA, the agency we hire to watch out for us, says the plane is fine.
You, of course, may come to a different decision. Even without anything other than the coincidental, superficial details of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes, you may decide not to fly a 737MAX. You may rely on the European safety agency, which has chosen to ground the planes. You may give more credence to Chinese regulators, who have grounded the plane. Or, it may be simple for you: Better safe than sorry. Why fly a plane that has suffered two fatal crashes in five months in similar circumstances?
I support you. I have long told you that I can't be in your wallet when you make travel purchases, so I surely cannot be in your head and your heart. If you decide not to fly the MAX series of 737s, I'm in your corner.
I'll tell you something else, too. If there had been two 737MAX crashes in five months within the United States and Canada, the pilots and the FAA may have already made other choices. The FAA already might have grounded these planes and this column would be about how we'll manage the disruption caused by dozens of American, United, Southwest, WestJet and Air Canada aircraft suddenly pulled from service.
The head. The heart. The facts and the opinions. The geography and the politics of safety. There's no "right" answer here. Only guesses. Only our judgments of what to do. I'll fly the 737MAX until experts I trust tell me otherwise or something else changes my mind. If you choose to book away, you have no more strenuous defender than this fat, old frequent flyer.
If our roads diverge in a yellow wood, I accept that we can't go together. We shouldn't go together. We're business travelers. We're smart. We're adults. We need to trust each other's judgment, honor each other's choices.
All I can tell you today are the calculations I've made for myself. Because safety, like it or not, is about calculation, not absolutes.
If I have a choice of nonstops, sure, why not, I'll book away from a 737MAX. But I'll be honest: The way that U.S. and Canadian carriers configure their MAX aircraft has more to do with that choice than safety. Have you flown one of these sardine cans? They are 21st-century torture chambers. Crappy slimline seats pitched with pitiable legroom in coach. Less room than ever before in first class, too. Any other mainline jet in the U.S. or Canadian fleets is more comfortable than the confines of a 737MAX. So, yeah, if my choice is a 737MAX nonstop or any other jet nonstop, I'm selecting any other jet.
But if my choice is a connecting flight or a nonstop on the 737MAX, no brainer. I'm choosing the 737MAX. Because if you are honestly worried about safety, one takeoff and one landing is statistically safer than two. And a nonstop on a 737MAX or a driving trip? Not even close. The statistics say flying is dramatically safer than driving. Period.
That's my calculation. Yours could be different. That's cool. When you come to the fork in the road, it's okay to take it. Let's meet up when our roads converge on the other side of the yellow wood.
Normally, I'd end this column there. How am I gonna do better than referencing Robert Frost and Yogi Berra in the same paragraph? But there is something else that is really important to say.
As I opined on the day before the FAA grounded the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2013, I'm not an aeronautic expert. What can I tell you about any software problems with the 737MAX that has any value? I'm not a pilot, either, so I can't hold forth intelligently on the various permutations. This is literal rocket science. I'm no rocket scientist.
One JoeSentMe.com member says he's "baffled" that I don't pound my columnist's pulpit and demand the MAX aircraft be grounded. I am sorry that I don't feel that way and sorry he feels I have somehow broken trust with him. Another member says I should remind folks about the deHavilland Comet, the first commercial jetliner. It suffered three mid-air break-ups in a year due to the then-unknown phenomenon of metal fatigue. I reminded him that the Comet also was an eerie case of life imitating art--or at least the movie No Highway in the Sky.
The saddest part of all of this? It takes years to do the kind of thorough investigation that yields useful intelligence about a plane crash. It could be years before we know for sure whether there was any genuine correlation between the Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes.
All we can do is wait--ages and ages hence, to plumb Frost again.
All we can do is make our best judgments as intelligent business travelers.
If our roads diverge in that benighted yellow wood, let's wish each other the best, honor each other's choices and meet up for a beverage in a good lounge on the other side.
This column is Copyright © 2019 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2019 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.