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Should You Be Worried If You're Flying On A Boeing 737 Max 8?


Let's say you have a flight booked and, given the recent news, you've looked more closely at the type of plane, and it turns out it is a Boeing 737 Max 8. Should you be scared? Should you try and switch flights?

Well, today, the United Kingdom joined a handful of other countries in announcing that they are suspending all use of these planes. Here in the United States, the FAA has not done that. Southwest and American fly the 737 Max 8. United flies a similar 737 plane, and they're all still in the air. This is the type of plane that was involved in two fatal crashes in less than five months, including Sunday's crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight that killed 157 people.

David Soucie worked for the FAA as a safety regulator. He's co-author of the book "Why Planes Crash." And he joins us this morning. Welcome.

DAVID SOUCIE: Hello. Good morning, David.

GREENE: Would you board one of these planes right now?

SOUCIE: Well, it depends on which one. And let me tell you why. There are several airplanes that have been modified with an additional indicator for the pilot, which is - which overrides or notifies the pilot if the MCAS, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, has been activated on the airplane or not. So this is what the problem is. So basically, right now I personally would get on a 737. What I probably wouldn't do today is put my family on a 737 8. I don't know why that's different for me, but it certainly is. So I think that's kind of my position at this point.

GREENE: You would make a different calculation for yourself than for your family.

SOUCIE: Yeah, I think it's just a matter of risk - you know, risk management, I guess is what you would call it. You know, my 5-year-old granddaughter, there's no reason to put her in that level of risk at this time. If I had to fly, if I was heading off to a business meeting or that sort of thing, I'd just think, as far as a calculated risk, I'd feel more comfortable with that.

GREENE: And it does sound like there's this modification to these planes that you're talking about that could weigh on your decision. What does that modification mean? Is there any way passengers would know if a plane they're getting on has had something done to it?

SOUCIE: Yeah. It's important to know that the 737 Max 8 is the only one that has this issue right now as far as not having an indication for the pilot when the angle of attack indicator fails. So there is a way to know that. You can look at - for example, American Airlines, their 737 Max NG models, which you'd be able to tell when you're buying a ticket what model that is, does have these modifications. I'd be perfectly comfortable flying on those models with American Airlines.

GREENE: And then the other airlines, I guess it's a matter of just, as passengers, you know, maybe calling the airlines and figuring out if this has been done.

SOUCIE: Well, that's a way to do it. I did get information today from Reuters that the - that, within weeks, Boeing will be installing this modification. It's simply a software modification that'll be installed on all of the 737 Max 8s. So within a few weeks, this whole situation will change, and I'd be perfectly comfortable flying them because the pilots will have information about the failure of these angle of attack indicators if it happens to them.

GREENE: Can I just ask, if there's this big question out there about whether some of these planes are safe right now, why would the FAA not just ground the planes for even a few weeks to give Boeing time to do this?

SOUCIE: The FAA is the regulatory body. They can do this, but it doesn't prevent airlines themselves from taking precautionary measures and restricting flights of those that don't have this modification. So while the FAA is regulatory body, it's the same body that certifies the aircraft as airworthy. So for them to then come back now and say, oh, it's not airworthy would be a complete turnaround on what it is that they do here for us as safety regulators.

GREENE: So you're saying the FAA is thinking about its own image as part of the decision-making here, that they can't come say the 737 Max 8 is not safe if they've said for a long time that it is.

SOUCIE: Yeah, exactly. It would be contradictory for them to say that.

GREENE: I mean, that's going to strike a lot of people as irresponsible, I could imagine, if an agency would be thinking about its image as a priority and instead of just thinking about safety.

SOUCIE: Well, they are thinking of both. You know, there - when you think about whether the - how big the FAA is and their responsibility, they don't take anything lightly. I worked for them for 17 years, and they really took their time in making decisions. However, I believe in this situation they're not making the right decision. It's always better in my mind to err on the side of safety.

GREENE: David Soucie is a former safety regulator with the FAA. He's also co-author of the book "Why Planes Crash." Thanks so much for your time.

SOUCIE: Thank you, David. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.