Ben Groundwater is a Sydney-based travel writer, columnist and author with more than 20 years’ experience.
OPINION: It must have been about 15 years ago when I was standing in a boarding queue at an American airport, waiting to get on a plane, and could overhear a couple in front of me having a conversation about the type of aircraft we were boarding.
What is it? They couldn’t really see through the windows, and many of us don’t check the aircraft type when we’re booking flights. A plane is a plane is a plane. Who really cares?
But the guy standing in front of that couple did care. He turned around and smiled at them. “If it ain’t Boeing,” he said, “I ain’t going.”
Huh. If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going. If this aircraft wasn’t designed and manufactured by the Boeing Company, the iconic, historic American aviation brand, then I’m not getting on board. Don’t trust it.
I have a feeling that was a common sentiment back then, particularly among Americans placing faith in their homegrown brand (the phrase is even sold on bumper stickers and badges at the main Boeing factory in Washington state). Boeing was a symbol of quality, of trustworthiness, a feeling of comfort for those maybe a little disconcerted by the idea of riding in a metal tube 30,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.
I wonder what that guy is saying now. Because the world has changed for Boeing significantly in the past 15 years.
Pressure is mounting on Boeing in the wake of the Alaska Airlines scare, with loose bolts found in its 737 Max 9 jets.
Just last week an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 was a few minutes into a routine flight from Portland when a door plug (an unused emergency exit) just blew off the fuselage, causing all the air to be sucked out of the cabin, forcing an immediate emergency landing. A child sitting in the row of seats next to the window had his shirt ripped off him and sucked out of the plane.
It’s a miracle no one was even injured.
In response, US regulators ordered the temporary grounding of 171 aircraft, all 737 Max 9s, to be inspected before they could fly again. Other carriers around the world, including Turkish Airlines, Aeromexico and United, grounded their fleets of 737 Max 9s. United has already found several cases of faults in its door plugs.
This comes after two horrific incidents, in 2018 and 2019, of Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft crashing: Lion Air flight 610, which plunged into the Java Sea soon after take-off from Jakarta, killing all 189 passengers and crew; and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, which lost control shortly after take-off from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 on board.
After those incidents, the Boeing Company was rocked by further criticism stemming from investigations into its business practices, including allegations its corporate merger and restructure had led to a focus on profits over safety and overall quality.
Clearly, “if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going” doesn’t apply any more. In fact, there are probably plenty of people who think that if it ain’t Boeing, they feel much better about going.
Personally, I’m not particularly swayed either way. I’m one of those people who doesn’t tend to even check what sort of aircraft I will be flying on when I book a ticket. I’m the same as those people in front of me in that boarding queue in the US 15 years ago.
On long-haul flights, I’ll pay attention. Mostly because I want to fly in an A380. That’s nothing to do with safety, but rather space and comfort.
On other journeys, however, I will generally have no idea what I’m flying on until I’m buckling my seatbelt and happen to notice the safety card in the seatback pocket. Oh, an A320? A Boeing 787? An Embraer 190? A De Havilland Dash 8? A McDonnell Douglas MD-82? Cool. Means basically nothing to me.
I’m sure there were plenty of people who vowed to avoid Boeing 737 Max 8s after those crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, but have you actually stuck to that? I was a bit worried to begin with, but had completely forgotten until the door fell off a Max 9 a few days ago.
Perhaps this is naive or maybe even foolhardy. And it’s probably surprising given many passionate travellers are also massive aviation geeks. I love an A380 as much as the next travel dork (and Airbus has been praised recently for its safety features, after a full planeload of people were able to safely disembark JAL flight 516 after an A350’s collision and fire). But still, the type of aircraft I’m flying on generally means very little to me.
That may not be the case for other travellers in coming months, as Boeing attempts to recover its reputation from yet another hit.
I won’t be worrying too much about the Boeing aircraft, though there’s no denying the travel world has shifted on its axis once again, the aircraft manufacturer so many people once placed their trust in having been shown again to be anything but trustworthy.
As with many other people: if it ain’t Boeing, I’m fine with going.