The Foundation for Aviation Safety raises safety concerns over Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. This follows their independent review of the FAA’s Service Difficulty Reporting database. The data shows that airlines have filed over 1,300 safety reports concerning malfunctions in the Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, specifically the 737-8 and 737-9 models. Here’s what you need to know.
23.17 CET 21 Sept: Updated with Statement from FAA
23.00 CET 21 Sept: Updated with Statement from Boeing
20.18 CET 21 Sept: Updated with Statement from Alaska Airlines.
Update: Critical Clarification from Alaska Airlines on the Higher Level of Reporting
Alaska Airlines replied to FlightChic’s request for information and comment. An airline spokesperson explained that the higher number of reports it files with the FAA on the 737 MAX is procedural, not safety-related.Alaska Airlines
“Owning Safety is our number one value. It’s the reason people choose to fly with us each day.
“As part of our ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards) program requirements, Alaska Airlines must notify the FAA of all discrepancies with any ETOPS-significant system on our ETOPS aircraft, which includes all of our 737-9 MAX aircraft.
“While these events do not fall under the typical SDR (Service Difficulty Reports) requirements, our ETOPS program utilizes the SDR process to submit this data to the FAA. These ‘ETOPS SDRs’ document routine, everyday maintenance on our 737-9 aircraft and do not indicate a safety issue with that fleet.
“Our 737-9 SDR count is almost entirely driven by ETOPS reporting – ETOPS SDRs account for more than 95% of the total SDRs for our 737-9 fleet. Other airlines operating the MAX may have non-ETOPS MAX aircraft or may comply with the ETOPS requirements using different reporting methods.”
A Boeing spokesperson replied to FlightChic’s questions on this report with the following statement:
“Since Nov. 2020, the 737 MAX has flown more than 5.6 million flight hours and over 2.2 million revenue flights. Schedule reliability is well above 99%, which is consistent with other commercial airplane models.”
FAA Statement on 737 MAX
The FAA replied with extensive information both on the process of approval for the 737 MAX return to service and the SDR report data:
“While I am confident the MAX is safe, in-flight mechanical problems occasionally occur with every make and model of commercial aircraft. For that reason, it is inevitable that at some time in the future, a Boeing 737 MAX will turn back to its originating airport, divert, or land at its destination with an actual or suspected in-flight problem. While these events can be inconvenient and unsettling to passengers, they occur virtually every day in our national airspace system and are well handled by professional flight crews and the airlines.”Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
FAA Statement on requirements for submitting Service Difficulty reports.
“FAA regulations require airlines to file Service Difficulty Reports (SDRs) when specific events occur. Some airlines might file SDRs for events in addition to the ones that must be reported.
“It’s important to note that SDRs are only one method to track potential issues and identify possible trends. Federal regulations and numerous voluntary reporting systems ensure the FAA and operators collect extensive safety data that enables them to detect risks and address problems proactively to prevent accidents.
Federal Aviation Administration
- The FAA and airlines work together through the Commercial Aviation Safety Team to analyze safety data, identify possible trends, hazards and contributing factors, and develop safety enhancements to address them.
- FAA regulations require airlines to have Safety Management Systems (SMS). SMS are a set of policies and procedures where companies identify, monitor and address potential operational hazards early on, before they become serious problems.
- Airlines track issues through their FAA-approved maintenance programs.
- FAA Certificate Management Offices conduct Continued Operational Safety (COS) oversight of the airlines.”
Background: Claims from the Foundation for Aviation Safety
The Return of Boeing 737 MAX: A Quick Recap
In 2018 and 2019, Boeing 737 MAX aircraft were involved in two catastrophic crashes that resulted in 346 fatalities. The FAA subsequently grounded the aircraft, undertaking an 18-month recertification process. Boeing has since resumed deliveries of its MAX airplanes, asserting that they meet all safety criteria. Yet, the Foundation for Aviation Safety argues that FAA data contradicts this claim.
Data From the FAA: What’s at Stake?
The Foundation for Aviation Safety’s review of the FAA’s database reveals that Alaska Airlines, which began operating MAX aircraft in 2021, has submitted at least 1,230 safety reports. For comparison, the airline submitted just 25 reports for its 10 Airbus A321 Neo airplanes, which directly compete with the MAX.
The types of malfunctions reported include serious issues with vital systems like autopilot, engines, flight management computers, and other critical safety systems. Many of these malfunctions resulted in the grounding of the aircraft.
The “Swiss Cheese Model” of Accidents
Multiple or simultaneous system failures can overload even the most experienced flight crew. This creates conditions that align with what the Foundation for Aviation Safety calls the “Swiss cheese model” of accident causation. That is to say, several minor issues align to create a major failure. The Foundation points out that the 737 MAX already has a history of confusing crew-alerting systems, as seen in the previous crashes.
While Alaska Airlines represents only 13% of the US fleet of 423 Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, it accounts for many safety reports filed with the FAA. However, global considerations are equally critical. Foreign carriers, which are not required to report to the FAA, operate 67% of the worldwide MAX fleet. For the Foundation, this raises questions about the extent of international unidentified issues in the Boeing MAX airplanes.
The Foundation suggests that Alaska Airlines’ higher number of reports suggests others airlines may not be reporting as diligently.
“[Alaska Airlines] has a preponderance of the reports because the airline appears to be complying with the letter and spirit of the law,” the Foundation states. “The Alaska employees submitting these reports should be commended for their safety, leadership, and professionalism. On the other hand, airlines that choose not to submit reports are not making the industry safer. They are exposing the public and flight crews to unnecessary risks that could be mitigated while also incurring additional liability for their own airline.”
Note: there is no evidence to back this supposition. As Alaska Airlines explains, its 737-9 SDR count is 95% ETOPS reporting and adheres to their procedures in reporting routine maintenance events.
An Urgent Call for Action
The data collected by the Foundation for Aviation Safety raises questions as more airlines opt for the Boeing 737 MAX. The Foundation for Aviation Safety calls for action from aviation authorities globally. They urge the FAA and international bodies like Transport Canada, the Irish Aviation Authority, and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to reassess the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX airplanes. The Foundation also calls on industry stakeholders to uphold safety standards.
It’s critical to note that the Foundation for Aviation Safety is an independent watchdog group and does not represent any global regulator. Their findings are not conclusive. A database check is not a thorough safety investigation. That would be up to regulators. However, in the interest of aviation safety, concerns raised over safe aircraft operations deserve closer scrutiny by those qualified to investigate. The crashes that led to the grounding of the 737 MAX fleet involved terrible loss of life. They must never be allowed to happen again.