Is The Boeing 737 MAX Safe To Fly?

In 2019, it’s unthinkable that new planes can just fall out of the sky  Yet, we’ve seen two cases where this has indeed happened, and within just a few months of each other. While the investigation is ongoing and similarities remain, the real question on many travelers’ minds is: “Is the 737 MAX safe to fly?” To answer that, I want to share a little story of my experience on a 737 MAX 8.

The distinct 737 MAX winglet. Photo: Boeing

In February, I took two flights on the 737 MAX 8 operated by Fiji Airways between Fiji and Samoa. You can read a review of the outbound flight here. It was a normal flight by all standards, but I was nervous about the prospect of getting on a 737 MAX 8 after the Lion Air crash. However, the outbound flight was fantastic and any concerns I had about flying a 737 MAX aircraft were somewhat mitigated.

That was, until my return flight. We departed Apia bound for Nadi, Fiji at 5pm. We had a normal takeoff roll. After a few minutes, when we were at about 4-5,000 feet, something interesting happened. We leveled-off a little sharply and experienced something of a nosedive with engines at almost idle. It was not a very significant nosedive, maybe a couple hundred feet at most, but enough to get a frequent flier and avgeek a little rattled. In those few moments, the only thing running through my head was “I’m going to die alone”. I was relieved to the point of almost crying when we continued our climb and our throttle increased.

Neither the pilots nor cabin crew offered any explanation for what happened. I assumed it was a minor glitch or something. I tried to convince myself it was light turbulence. It may sound like I’m overreacting to the situation, as flying is a stressful event that can bring out more emotions than we expect, but overall, it led me to question whether or not I should have been on this aircraft.

I flew on a 737 MAX 8 with Fiji Airways recently. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

Undoubtedly, there are plenty of people who are concerned about upcoming flights on 737 MAX aircraft. In this article, I’m looking to provide you the information you need to be able to make a decision as to whether or not to remain on your 737 MAX aircraft or search for other options.

The Crashes

Simple Flying has reported extensively about the fatal Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights, so I’m not going to go into much detail. You can catch up on the Lion Air story here and the Ethiopian Airlines flight here.

Basically, very very very very new 737 Max 8 planes ended up scattered in pieces shortly after takeoff. Both exhibited some distress in terms of fluctuations in vertical speed, and both flights had no survivors.

A Lion Air 737. Photo: Boeing

The Airlines

Lion Air is a massive Indonesian low-cost carrier. With plenty of subsidiaries, Lion Air is a dominant force in the Indonesian domestic market and Southeast Asian air market as a whole. Catering to price-sensitive leisure travelers, Lion Air operates mainly to tourist destinations and aims to fly efficiently and cheaply.

In the past, Lion Air have had a poor safety record attributed to them, and were banned from flying into European airspace for some time. After making improvements in safety procedures, Lion Air was deemed safe enough to fly to the European Union. Then, on October 29, 2018, a brand new 737 MAX 8 crashed into the Java Sea. This raised some questions about Lion Air’s safety record and attributed some murky operational details to the aircraft’s unfortunate crash.

On the other hand, Ethiopian Airlines is also a gigantic African airline. They are a dominant force and their growth is tremendous. They are well known in the aviation world and fly to various destinations, including to the U.S. What is most striking about this incident is that Ethiopian Airlines has an excellent safety record. The plane in question had been flying normally and passed all of Ethiopian Airlines’ maintenance checks.

Ethiopian Airlines are a well-known airline in the aviation world. Photo: Boeing

While investigations are not complete, the comparison of both of these incidents leads to questions about the aircraft itself.

The Aircraft

Boeing’s 737 is undoubtedly a highly successful aircraft. Since its early days to modern times, they’ve been loved by airlines and passengers alike as a short or medium-haul workhorse. As some airlines expand on long and thin routes, the 737 became ideal for their operations; especially the 737 MAX.

Boeing is also making a huge profit from its 737 program. Undoubtedly, any negative press about Boeing 737 will cause some unease which could see Boeing lose orders. It remains to be seen how this turns out for Boeing, but anything is possible.

In creating this new aircraft, Boeing introduced a new anti-stall system that was, apparently, not well documented or advertised to trainers and pilots. This led to an outcry from some pilots due to the lack of notification. While Boeing did ultimately issue a bulletin, it would have been nicer to see them advertise the system in the first place.

On the inside, the Boeing 737 MAX is a quiet and advanced aircraft. On my flights, I enjoyed the quiet flight and found the larger overhead bins and Sky Interior to be welcome features. While the bathroom was a bit tight, the aircraft was fine for short- or even medium-haul routes. In fact, I noticed that the 737 MAX seemed far more improved over the 737 than an A320neo compared to the A320.

The Boeing Sky Interior was a welcome touch to their 737 aircraft. Photo: Boeing

While seat pitch and lavatory size can vary from airline to airline, as a whole, the 737 MAX aircraft feels refreshed and helps make for a great flight on any airline. Personally, I felt less jet-lagged and found the pressurization to be comfortable on the ears and the body. Compared to other aircraft, the low noise inside the cabin really makes a difference. I didn’t feel like I had to shout at the flight attendant for her to take my meal order.

The Statistics

Air travel is the safest form of transportation there is. The aviation industry has come a long way since turboprops and multi-day transcontinental routes. Incidents do happen, but when they do the aviation world studies these incidents carefully and documents them for improvements. This makes every year a safer year for flying on an aircraft.

Every year, older aircraft are retired in favor of newer models with better fuel efficiency and safety features. Maintenance procedures are improved and airlines are investing in safe aircraft.

Improved aircraft maintenance procedures help keep passengers safe. Photo: American Airlines

The combination of these factors makes crashes incredibly rare. This is especially true for newer aircraft. Getting on a plane these days is safer than getting in a car. The odds of dying in a car accident are about one in 100. The odds of dying on a plane is about one in 200,000. While those statistics vary based on the type of aircraft you get on, the maintenance schedule of the aircraft in question, etc. etc., the bottom line is, flying is incredibly safe.

Is the 737 MAX safe?

The short answer is we don’t know. We’re still waiting on the results of this investigation, but here is what I can leave you with.

If you are anxious about flying, stay away from the 737 MAX. If you’re an anxious traveler, you can go with the timeless mantra: it is better to be safe than sorry. Flying can already cause stress for worried passengers and you don’t want even more stress because you’re concerned about a flaw with the plane that might cause it to crash. Purely for your mental sanity, I would recommend you choose another aircraft.

If you’re examining the situation based on the data and statistics, the odds seem pretty good that you could get on a 737 MAX flight and arrive safely at your destination. There are about 350 in service and only 2 have been involved in a hull loss. American Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines all fly the 737 MAX aircraft on a daily basis. Thankfully, there have been no reported hull losses with the 737 MAX on any of their aircraft. In addition, no major news or pilot statements have been released indicating that any of the aforementioned airlines had an in-flight incident due to issues with the new anti-stall system that Boeing introduced on the 737 MAX.

China has grounded the 737 MAX, but as of now, no other major civil aviation body has issued a bulletin, notice, or complete grounding of the 737 MAX. Ethiopian Airlines and Cayman Airways have also grounded their 737 MAX aircraft.

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether or not to avoid the 737 MAX. We’re still waiting on a final report, but we’ll keep you updated with all the developments of the 737 MAX here at Simple Flying.

Will you fly on the 737 MAX? Let us know in the comments!

Editorial note: I, the author, do not work for Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, Bombardier, etc. No aircraft manufacturer or airline is compensating me for writing this article.

30 comments
  1. Hi there,

    regarding your experiences onboard a B38M, did you ever check the granular data on Flightradar24 or another such site for your flight to check whether what you describe you felt actually happened, or whether it was just what it felt like?

    “We leveled off a bit sharply and had a nose dive with engines at almost idle. It was not a very significant nosedive, maybe a couple hundred feet at most, but enough to get a frequent flier and avgeek a little rattled.”

    M.

    1. Yes, I did go back and recheck the data. A few minutes after takeoff, our vertical speed was mostly normal until a period when our vertical speed became erratic and we only climbed about 300 feet in 10 seconds- which is not normal for an aircraft.

      1. Jay I have no doubt in my mind that what you experienced during the flight was the exact same issue that lion air experienced and more likely than not the ethiopian airways flight namely the angle of attack sensor gave a false reading and pitched the nose down the pilot must have known how to disable the system this will continue to happen from my perspective it is safe to fly in a boeing 737 max as long as the pilots know how to disable the system as I am sure this will continue to happen have no doubt in my mind the same exact reason for lion airways crash caused the ethiopian airways crash all pilots must be made aware of the mcas system and that the sensor could be faulty hence causing the nose to pitch down when there is no imminent stall threat as long as all pilots are told about mcas and how to disable it I see no reason why the max is not safe all pilots flying the max boeing should be made aware of mcas system and how to disable it

        1. Mendy, you could not be more wrong if you tried.
          You should stop posting fake, unsubstantiated information.
          You have absolutely NO IDEA what you are talking about.

          Nadi around 5 pm on most days is busy. There are a lot of arrivals from the south west coming in. VA has 3 flights departing and arriving, FJ has 3-4, Air Calin has one and occasionally Our Airline and Air Van make an appearance around that time. Jetstar have usually left by this time on their way to SYD,

          Nadi has one main runway 02/20 and crossing 09/27 which is shorter. Most arrivals into Nadi use runway 02, and most departures use Runway 20.

          To facilitate your departure off Runway 20, you are facing the incoming traffic from the west. Nadi Approach will require a departure to the south of Runway 20, then usually a turn to the west passing 2500 ft. Then usually a hold down in altitude at around 4000 ft. At this time, we’re usually over Treasure or Mana island over the Mananuca Island groups. This is usually done in level flight. Usually we are then instructed to pick up the 218 Radial from NN VOR or 213 radial depending if we’re heading to BNE or SYD.
          Further climb is usually issued once established outbound on the radial, away from the other inbound traffic.

          Nadi has NO radar, we seperate ourselves procedurally which Nadi approach provides.

          Yes it can be dramatic for those not used to a low level level off in a airliner. The thrust goes from CLB (101%-99%) to around 65-70% N1 and the nose will lower from 15 degrees nose up, down to around 2-3 degrees nose up at the same time. I will hand fly this manoeuvre if workload permits. I want to maintain altitude at 4000’ or whatever Nadi have told me to maintain.

          MCAS has NOTHING to do with this. This is a normal departure procedure, with your pilots doing what they are paid to do, fly the aircraft. MCAS is only on the MAX, and only active when the Autopilot is OFF. It is not fitted to the older NG series.

          The latest accident with Ethiopian has NOT be decisively concluded as being a problem with the MAX and MCAS. Often in aviation, all is not what it seems at first glance.

          I write this as a approx 9000 hour 737 NG Captain with (real not flight sim) experience flying in the Pacific.

          1. Addendum..

            Having seen the original post is regarding a APW/NSFA departure, the level off described still occurs as described above out of Nadi as it would flying out of APW. My other comments still stand.

            Unsubstantiated tripe really gets my engine running…..

          2. Actually, Nadi doesn’t have any departures at 5 pm. Virgin Australia’s flights leave at around 2-4. The only arrivals into Nadi at around 5 is the flight from Samoa, which is the flight on which I came. I departed Nadi in a 737 MAX and at no point did the engines reach almost idle when departing Nadi like they did when departing Samoa. Even a low level off wouldn’t occur for only ~8-10 seconds before continuing on a normal climb.

        2. @Mendy,
          When we talk about aviation, if there was a crash, then a notice on how to disable the system, and a crash again, even if the pilot has part of the responsibility (90% maybe), it’s a sign that the system isn’t good, and that it’s unsafe.
          A pilot shouldn’t have to correct an aircraft that dives because the system believes that the aircraft is stalling when it’s not the case.

          Aviation safety is based on redundancy. And redundancy doesn’t only include the number of systems on board, but also the pilot-machine interaction.
          If the pilot doesn’t remember or couln’t do the manipulation fast enough (it’s right after take-off, this is problematic), it means that the system isn’t well designed and therefore is unsafe.
          Plus, don’t forget that Boeing aircraft used to be “pilot over computer”. The pilot used to have the last word no matter the situation.
          In this case it’s definitely the opposite !
          And Boeing pilots say often that on Airbus, the pilot only does what the computer allows him to do.
          But it seems that the computer has the right amount of sensors to be able to determine which one is wrong (2 Angle of Attack sensors doesn’t make any sense for a decision making system).
          So even if the pilot should have been aware of it, and he might be responsible, for redundancy reasons, we can assume that the system is not good enough and that the aircraft should be able to take into account the flaws of the pilots which isn’t the case here. There is room for improvement, so let’s improve it !

    2. Hello,
      Could it be that the B737Max is unstable in pitch (down) due to the forward engine position, such that when there is a significant pitch down (due to say MCAS) and a zero or negative Angle of Attack (AOA), the nose down pitching moment of the engines exceeds the corrective possibilities of elevator or trim control. This would mean that the pilot could not correct the situation regardless of whether the MCAS is activated or deactivated.

  2. Hi
    Well articulated article and my sentiments exactly ! I agree that people should stay away from the 737 MAX, I stronly believe the Boeing 737 MAX Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS ) has some serious bug and this needs to be addressed as definitely the stalling and Angle of Attack through its sensors are the source of the problem… I am gutted and scared of flying at the moment …

    1. This element was improved after the last crash wasn’t it? If I’m not mistaken, the training takes this into account, and additional sensors were added, at least for Southwest.
      https://theaircurrent.com/aviation-safety/southwest-airlines-is-adding-new-angle-of-attack-indicators-to-its-737-max-fleet/
      But a preventive grounding should be a honest reaction, especially if we keep in mind the safety measures taken for the B787 that might have saved lives.

      However, there is no reason to be that scared. The blackbox was found, so answers should arrive soon, and the safety will be kept in mind by authorities of every country.
      Some airlines agree to change passengers from one aircraft to another if possible, so if you have scheduled flights on the 737 Max, you can give a try !

  3. To M.J. – I have no doubt in that frequent Flyer passenger that he felt what he felt. And it will be helpful to the investigators. 2 fairly new 737 MAX 8 crashed – all under similar conditions is reason enough to ground all of them until the cause of These 2 crashes are known. Of course we can wait for the 3rd one coming done . . . . . . and then have a reason more to do what Needs to be done.

  4. This incident will definitely weigh on the flying public’s minds regarding this plane.
    Boeing must take the lead with a very transparent investigation to instill confidence in this aircraft.
    If problems are found, report, fix and or remove this aircraft.
    Economics will definitely play its part but if there were to ever be a crash of this plane in the U.S. or by one of the three major U.S. airlines using this plane it will be catastrophic on all counts for Boeing. My hopes are that this does not become a “To Big To Fail” issue and that a methodical investigation will take place.

    1. Most of the passengers don’t pay attention to the aircraft type… Only aviation enthusiasts do it and somehow nationalists that prefer their home country brand…
      The investigation will be very opened for several reasons.
      Boeing knows that Trump is a “problem” for the reputation of the US abroad, and that some countries wait for an excuse to block the export of Boeing. And that’s a great opportunity.
      So Boeing will make all the changes required to make it safe to fly, and potentially go back to the former flight system (the one of the NG) or modify it in a way that there are more AoA sensors, and a better interaction pilot-computer for the reaction of the aircraft to the sensor imput.
      It might cause a few months grounding. But the size of the order is so huge that Boeing will restore the faith in that aircraft, and will prove that the computer will react differently to the input if that is the cause.

      One of the most important topic to me is the matter of modernized aircrafts.
      The assumption that the new one can be flown exactly as the former one is “dangerous”. And we saw this on the Lion Air crash where the pilots didn’t know that the computer could react that way, and didn’t know how to take the control of it…
      As most of the aircrafts today have more than one generation A320, B737, Embraer E-jets, A330, A340, B777, soon the A350, most likely the B787 as well and the B747… The flight safety authorities, the airlines and the manufacturers should work on the testing, the training of those aircrafts to ensure that those every modification of the plane behavior is known by every pilots, and is tested thoroughly.
      And that could have happened (and could still happen) to Airbus aircrafts ! So the event of November should be used as a safety improvement element !

  5. There are some airspace with speed restrictions particularly when flying over land. In those zones, there tends to be a noticeable reduction in speed until they throttle up again. Usually after they have cruised through a certain altitude. That might also explain it.

  6. This is what happens when an essentially 1960s design is stretched and modified beyond its limits. With newer bigger engines, mounted higher and farther forward, the CoG changes made this re-re-re-re-re-re-design more prone to stalling, hence the need for some fancy electronic backup, too complex to disable, except very temporarily, in time when only a few thousand feet above ground level. And not clearly indicated in the flight manual to try and reduce pilot retraining on this new type of a/c. Some very expensive – as it has turned out – cost-cutting by Boeing in their race to outdo Airbus when they announced the A320neo series. I guess after the HUGE losses incurred on developing the B787 – still not fully amortized – Boeing chose the cheap route. May prove very expensive yet.
    Still, even though coincidences are not to be trusted per se though usually a strong clue, we need to wait for the black box analysis before we can be dogmatic. Meanwhile, I wont go near a MAX. And I know that a lot of pilots deep down feel the same.

    1. …I am a pilot, and to some degree I agree with you. We don’t know if the causes of these latest Boeing crashes are similar, but what we do know, is that both were brand new aircraft of the same type. (I have not flown a modern B737).

    1. The Max 10 isn’t flying yet.
      The aerodynamics changes slightly from one to the other, the wings are not the same for the Max 10 I believe…
      But the systems are exactly the same for the haul family, only adapted to the characteristics of the other size. One pilot flying one of the family is allowed to fly all in general (with training). So they need to have the same system in order to avoid mistakes !

  7. As a retired airline pilot and FAA Gold seal flight instructor, it always makes me cringe when people use terms like,”nosedive”. Such phrases imply an aircraft is in a terminal vertical dive; your experience is called a descent. I do think, based on what you said, that your flight crew may have indeed experienced an uncommanded descent, from which they recovered quickly and corrected the cause, whatever it might have been, which is why I’m concerned the media isn’t saying much, if anything about pilot error in these accidents.

  8. I would not like to fly Boeing 737 MAX 8 make of the report please. Even if it is found that they are safe etc etc. How do I make sure none of my flights are on this plane?

  9. Hello. I would not like to fly Boeing 737 MAX 8 make of the report please. Even if it is found that they are safe etc etc. How do I make sure none of my flights are on this plane?

  10. This is one of the industries where safety has has has has to be NUMBER ONE! How can some websites brag that there were 1000s of flights and ONLY 2 fatalities. Are they out of their minds when they say ONLY!! Shame on them.
    I would never never never never fly on 737 max model.

  11. The B737 Max story is an embarrassment for Boeing and the FAA. First both crashes occurred with the low speed warning (Stick Shaker – SS) and the high speed warning (Clacker -C) going berserk. These are MANDATORY warning systems that requires immediate contrasting pilot input. They cannot operate together UNLESS there is a major design flaw. Passengers can chose to play Russian Roulette by flying the B737 Max but I do not need that much excitement in my life. Lets look at the accident sequence. The pilot flying (PF) on both aircraft was the captain. The failure of the AoA was on the Captains side. The Pilot not Flying (PNF) was the first officer. With the failure there was a deviation in speed and altitude indications between the PF and the PNF. In both cases the PF and PNF knew there was a deviation. In the Lion Air crash the PNF asked the ground what their readings were and acknowledged the reply. The PF flying needed to verify which was correct the communication between the aircraft and the ground continued to be made by the PNF and he under Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) is not the PF. The stick shaker started at Vr (Rotate speed) this is the speed at which the aircraft can leave the ground safely and reach 35ft with one engine inoperative so with both engines the flight technically was safe and COMPLETELY unlikely to stall especially if the speed was accelerating which it was. In CRM the speeds are called by the PNF and the PF is checking it against his readings and they must have been consistent for the PF to continue the flight to Vr. However here there is a concern because as soon as he lifted the nose the stick shaker came on which indicates that the software is feeding into the system INCORRECT information to cause this to happen. There is NO SUCH THING as a high speed stall, steep turns at higher speeds may cause a stall but there is no such thing as a high speed stall. So in the event of a stick shaker making a racket (because of its implications on safety it is designed to make a lot of noise and to really get the pilots attention distracting him from everything else) because the pilot is required to react to it as it is a warning of a potential stall. The stick shaker operated well above the safe speeds even when no stall was at all possible. The augmentation system continued to operate EVEN when there was no LIKELIHOOD of a stall. Anyone that says this is OK needs to learn his principles of flight and should immediately be taken of flying duties and his licence terminated for lack of knowledge on basic principles of flight. The fact that the airspeed which can be acquired from the inertial navigation system as well is not part of the augmentation response is NOT ACCEPTABLE and indicates that Boeing and FAA have not met the criteria for Fit and Proper persons in the process of issuing a Certificate of Airworthiness as this is WRONG in Principles of Flight. We know too little about the automation in the aircraft systems and should not allow this aircraft to continue to operate until we know what is being put into the management of the aircraft. Boeing and the FAA have not been transparent and as a former person who had to try and prepare a B737 to meet the FAA export Certificate of Airworthiness and had to really work hard to ensure that the aircraft was safe for flight and also had to prepare First of type report for CAA approval I understand what is needed to ensure compliance with ICAO Annex 8. It is a state responsibility and cannot be abrogated. With competent authorities like the FAA you can say that they are an acceptable standard however the FAA have advised due to budgetary constraints they had to delegate authority to Boeing. This has to ring alarm bells throughout the world especially as the US Aviation reserve fund has billions unspent in it. There is a lot more to come but the fact that the FAA and Boeing have kept their CEOs and Senior Management in place is SHAMEFUL.

  12. “The short answer is we don’t know.”

    You dont know or your dont want to tell or you cannot tell.

    Everyone with a little bit of intelligence and curiosity now know that Boeing modified the 737 in a way that the hardware is now not flyable any more. The design is flawed. And they have used software to correct this physical design flaw.

    How can you actually put doubts in peoples minds about this. Looks like you are supporting boeing in their unethical business practices where profits are the only thing that matters.

    1. The article was written prior to further information being released as to the nature of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX incident. As an online news source, it is irresponsible for us to publish information without a doubt prior to the release of certain information.

  13. Hi there well I am not a aviation geek but aviation is in my blood and I am an aviation personal. So in my opinion nowadays we take sensitive issues very lightly , As the lion airline captain could have made an entry regarding the issue in the journey/incident log faced by him previous day the scenario could have been different.
    Boeing knowing the issue then also after Lion air crash didn’t make the pilots for Max aware of the situation scrupulously , even they have the same issues while conducting the test flight of Max. Yes I know that every new aircraft newly inducted in service have some potential hazards which is corrected by trial and error method , But nowadays everything is about money and human lives have become cheap in this rat race.
    If any one could remember the two incidents that tool place with Mc Douglas 10 cargo door that blew up in midair ,in the first incident the aircraft landed safely but the second turned out to be an disaster. If only the airlines operating the Dc-10 would have listened to the NTSB guidelines Andy carried out the Mods then the second incident could have been avoided and the Mc Douglas company could have survived.

    I know to make profit is the ultimate goal of every company but making profits keeping the human life at stake is devils call , the top management need to understand and measure the quality . We are not in a industry where we can go to any level to make profit ,we have to keep in mind that keeping people onboard our machine safe is also a moto of our profit.

  14. I don’t care what everyone says. A a passenger, I will not fly the 737 Max. If I have to cancel meetings or anything else I don’t care. Period.

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