Boeing's disastrous year is having a ripple effect on the entire airline industry
A headline in The New York Times the other day startled me: “Boeing Pivots to Safety First on 737 Max Jets.”
Wait, I thought. You don’t pivot to “safety first.” You start with safety first, and maybe then you get to the other stuff, including basic comfort for passengers on the airplane.
As has been very well reported, all of the nearly 400 recent-model Boeing 737-800 Max jets in airline fleets globally have been grounded as Boeing engineers scramble to address safety issues with anti-stall software. This follows the Lion Air Max-8 flight that crashed last October after takeoff at Jakarta (killing all 189 on board) and the Ethiopian Airlines Max-8 flight that crashed in March minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 on board.
The Times headline notwithstanding, of course aircraft manufacturers and airlines always put safety as Priority No. 1. Rather than a pivot toward safety, the two disastrous Max-8 crashes caused an intense and specific re-focus on safety systems on the Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, for which Boeing has about 4,000 orders. In the United States, three airlines have Max 8s in their fleets: Southwest has 34; American has 24, and United has 14 – all grounded till further notice.
Flight delays are occurring because of this. The airlines insist they’re minimal, but flyers who are stranded or delayed when flights are cancelled are fuming, and the cancellation of one flight obviously can have an adverse ripple effect on connections throughout the system.
Southwest, which has about 750 of all Boeing 737 models in its fleet, says that its 24 Max 8s accounted for less than five percent of its 4,000 daily flights. United says that its 14 Max 8s accounted for about 40 of its 4,800 daily departures. American’s 24 Max 8s account for about 3,300 of its daily mainline departures, but American has been notably proactive in notifying customers about what lies ahead. American said in early April that it is canceling about 90 daily a day into early June because of the Max 8 groundings.
Southwest Airlines has had a particularly rocky period, with a whopping 10,000 flights cancelled since mid-February, due to weather, a dispute with its mechanics union, and the Max 8 groundings.
Eventually, the Max 8’s should be flying again with the safety issues addressed Then passengers can revisit another issue with these airplanes that to me symbolizes the overall complaints that flyers have about air travel in general: a lack of comfort that seems to be getting worse as airlines try to cram more seats and pack in more paying customers. Unlike the safety issue, this one isn’t likely to be resolved any time soon for coach flyers.
American in particular has come under fire, including from its flight attendants union, for the tighter coach cabin configuration on the Max 8s, and especially the lavs. The two tiny bathrooms for coach are crammed in the rear of the plane in such a way that the doors hit each other and block the galley when both are opened at the same time. “To squeeze in more seats they shrunk the lavatories,” Gary Leff wrote on his travel blog, View From the Wing, after he took an American Max 8 inaugural flight in late 2017. “I fit, but my sides touch the wall and the sink while facing the toilet.”
The Max 8 coach cabin is a “miserable experience,” a captain for the airline told Robert Isom, the company president, during an employee meeting, according to an article in The Los Angeles Times last summer on the overall shrinking of lav space in airline coach cabins. “You’ve added 12 more seats, no more lavatories, and you’ve shrunk that lavatory to 75 percent of what it was before. I can’t turn around in it,” he said.
American flight attendants also have complained to their union and to airline officials about the sinks in the Max 8 lavs, which they said are so shallow that water splashes out, and so small that you can wash only one hand at the time.
American responded by reducing the water pressure in the sinks.
Airline passengers might want to respond by saying that once the pivot to safety is successfully completed, how about pivoting to basic comfort?
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