You don’t need to freak out about Boeing planes (but Boeing sure does)

“Ah, it’s a Boeing Max,” I exclaimed to my travel companions after we boarded our plane a few weeks ago. I looked to see if we were seated next to a hidden door plug panel like the one that blew out on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 in January. We weren’t, but joining a trend on social media, we cracked a few jokes at Boeing’s expense: “Maybe they can charge extra, saying it’s potentially an even bigger window seat.”

The FBI recently informed the passengers on that ill-fated Alaska Airlines flight that they may have been crime victims. The agency hasn’t explained why, but Boeing has told the Senate that it cannot find documentation of exactly how the door plug was removed and reinstalled, even though the company acknowledged it is supposed to have kept such records. Facing all this, the company announced last week that it was replacing its CEO. But the bad news wasn’t over: On Thursday, a New York Times investigation reported a disturbing pattern of sloppy safety procedures and dangerous cost-cutting. One expert who had spent more than a decade at Boeing told the Times, “The theme is shortcuts everywhere — not doing the job right.”


Is it any wonder that some travelers are trying to avoid Boeing planes? Kayak, a travel booking site, noticed an uptick in the number of people trying to weed them out; it recently made that search filter more prominent and even added an option to specifically avoid certain models.

Personally, I am not worried about flying, and other than cracking some ill-advised jokes, I have not changed my behavior. That’s why I hadn’t bothered to check whether I’d be flying on a Boeing Max, or any type of Boeing plane, until after I boarded.

The trajectory of Boeing as a corporation, however, is another matter. It’s going to take a lot more than a shuffle at the top to fix that company’s problems. But the fact that Boeing managed to cut as many corners as it did is testament to the layers and layers of checks, redundancies and training that have been built into the aviation industry. Aviation safety is so robust because we made it so.

Two seemingly contradictory things are both true: U.S. commercial passenger airlines have gone an astonishing 15 years without a single death from a crash. And there is a huge safety crisis in commercial aviation that we urgently need to fix.

Commercial aviation is a complex system involving many dynamics: technology, engineering, corporate culture, regulation, weather, human factors, politics and more.

It’s extremely hard to predict what will emerge from so many different things interacting all at once — an example of the so-called butterfly effect, in which a tiny insect flapping its wings leads to major weather events on the other side of the world. And although testing every part of the system on its own is necessary, it’s insufficient, since it’s the interaction of many moving parts that creates those hard-to-foresee problems. Solving equations won’t be enough to manage it all because such systems defy easy calculations.

We do, however, have methods to manage complex and safety-critical systems, and if done right, they can work very well.

Perhaps the most important measure is redundancy, the layering of precautions. Since even a minor failure could set off a catastrophic chain of events, it’s important to shore up everything. That’s why many plane parts have duplicates or backups, and much of planes’ production and maintenance is subject to inspections by multiple people..

Given the impossibility of testing for every outcome, keeping complex systems safe also depends on another crucial signal: near misses. If something goes wrong but disaster is averted, the correct response should not be a “whew” and back to normal. It should be caution and investigation.

The Times investigation shows how alarmingly different Boeing’s approach was.

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