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12 March 2019

The second crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 will only increase our irrational fear of flying

Is there any experience that better encapsulates modern anxieties than hurtling through space thousands of feet above solid ground?

By Sophie McBain

On 10 March, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Addis Ababa on a clear, mild morning, bound for Nairobi, Kenya. Around six minutes later, the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed, killing all 189 people on board. The tragedy had immediate and global repercussions.

The passengers came from 37 countries, and their deaths are being mourned by friends and relatives scattered across Africa, North America, Europe and Asia. A number of those killed had high-profile, international careers, among them were aid workers, peacekeepers, university professors and a diplomat; 19 of the victims worked for the United Nations.

This human catastrophe could also mark a cataclysmic moment for aviation security, and for the world’s largest plane manufacturer, Boeing. Five months ago, another Boeing 737 Max 8 plane, this one operated by Lion Air, crashed shortly after take-off in Indonesia, killing 189 people. Investigators believe the crash was caused by a malfunction with the aircraft’s anti-stall mechanism, which repeatedly forced the plane into a steep nose-dive despite the pilots’ efforts to regain control.

The anti-stall mechanism did not feature on previous Max models. According to Bloomberg, Boeing has faced accusations, which it denies, that pilots were not trained on this feature and that the plane’s manuals also did not mention it. Weeks after the Lion Air crash, the US Federal Aviation Authority issued an emergency directive on how to respond should the problem arise.

It is not yet known whether the Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed because of a similar malfunction. The black boxes have been recovered, and investigators will need to pour over them to determine what exactly went wrong. 

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But some countries and airlines are not waiting for the results of the crash investigation to take action. The UK has joined a growing number of countries including China, Indonesia and Ethiopia have grounded all 737 Max 8 planes, as have Cayman Airways and South Africa’s Comair. Their hastiness is understandable: the 737 Max 8 launched in 2017 and, according to Cirium’s Fleets Analyzer, there are now 371 of them in service. As Jon Ostrower, the editor-in-chief of the Air Current, an aviation website, pointed out on Twitter, that two such newly built, fully certified planes should crash within five months is “unheard of in the modern era of record aviation safety”.

Though it may offer little solace to nervous passengers aboard 737 Max 8 planes (many countries, including the US, where 72 such planes are in service, say they will continue using them for now), air travel has generally never been safer. Data compiled by the Aviation Safety Network show that the number of fatal airliner accidents has steadily declined in recent decades, from more than 4.0 accidents per million flights in 1977 to under 0.4 per million in 2017.

That year was, admittedly, the safest in aviation history: no passenger jets crashed. But even last year, when 523 people died in 11 fatal plane crashes (including three involving large passenger planes), there was just one major accident for every 5.4 million flights, according to the International Air Transport Association.

But reassuring aviation security statistics do little to assuage fears of plane crashes. According to the charity Anxiety UK, one in ten people is scared of flying. Humans are terrible at interpreting risk, and rare but dramatic catastrophes – such as planes falling from the sky and terrorist attacks – loom larger than the more mundane but more likely ways in which one could die unexpectedly, such as in a car accident or falling down the stairs.

One app called Am I Going Down tries to calm nervous flyers by estimating the odds they might crash on their flight – but even if humans did respond to danger in a probabilistic way, such odds are so hard to define: how would you estimate the chance of another 737 MAX 8 crash?

Rationalising the risk has never eased my mid-air anxiety, or tendency during turbulence to grip the arm rest until my knuckles turn white, as if the force of my will alone could keep a plane aloft. When I worked in Libya, I often flew domestically on airlines that were on the EU’s airline blacklist because of their safety record. “Don’t be scared, if God says it’s your time, it’s your time,” my government “minder” once told me, which only made things worse.

Approaching Tripoli Airport, I could sometimes see the debris of a 2010 Air Afriqiyah crash strewn in the desert below. Most of those killed in that disaster were from Holland, and a friend of mine at the Dutch embassy visited the wreckage and the morgue, and sat in hospital with the sole survivor, a ten-year-old boy from Tilburg, my mother’s hometown.

Our fear of flying may not be rational, in the sense of proportionate, but is there any experience that better encapsulates so many modern anxieties than to be hurtling through space at miraculous speeds, suspended thousands of feet above solid ground by forces most of us can’t really grasp, and at the mercy of two pilots who might not truly understand the tech they are using either?