Four months on from the fatal Ethiopian Airlines crash, the second in the space of five months involving a 737 MAX, and the model – once hailed as the short-haul plane of the future – remains grounded. Experts estimate the ongoing saga will cost Boeing upwards of $US1 billion, while this week a Saudi Arabian airline, Flyadeal, cancelled an order for 30 of the new aircraft.
The problems have seen comparisons drawn between the 737 MAX and de Havilland's Comet. Not since the launch of the world's first commercial jet airliner, way back in 1952, has the introduction of a plane been so tarnished by tragedy.
The commencement of BOAC's first Comet services came with much fanfare. It flew at twice the height and speed of previous airliners and both Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were among the 30,000 passengers to board the aircraft in its first year. Early sales were strong, with Air France, Air India, Japan Air Lines and Pan Am among the other carriers to place orders. Britain was primed to lead the world into the jet age.
But then came a string of accidents. In October 1952 a Comet failed to takeoff from Rome's Ciampino Airport and overshot the runway. The plane was written off and two passengers were injured. In March 1953, another failed takeoff on a delivery flight from Pakistan to Australia saw a Comet plunge into a canal, causing the death of all 11 on board.
Worse was to follow. On May 2 1953 BOAC Flight 783 crashed six minutes after leaving Calcutta (now Kolkata). The aircraft broke up in a thunder squall and all 43 on board perished. An inquiry was launched, some orders were cancelled, but the Comet remained in the sky.
Two worryingly similar crashes followed in 1954. The first, on January 10, came on another flight from Ciampino. The first production Comet, G-ALYP, operating BOAC Flight 781, broke up 20 minutes after takeoff. Thirty-five died. The second, on April 8, saw South African Airways Flight 201 plummet into the Mediterranean with the loss of 21 lives having also suffered an explosive decompression.
It was clear that the Comet possessed profound safety problems. The model's Certificate of Airworthiness was revoked, the production line was suspended, and for four years the Comet was grounded while de Havilland built and tested a new version.
The Comet 4, which went into service in October 1958, featured a strengthened fuselage and wing structure with – among other things – round, rather than square, windows. But the Comet never quite shook off the legacy of those early accidents. Only 114 were ever built and airlines, including BOAC, quickly switched to the Boeing 707 after it was launched in 1958. The US manufacturer would go on to dominate commercial air travel, leaving crumbs for the likes of de Havilland.
The Comet's accident rate was far worse than the 737 MAX, of course. Boeing has already built 393 MAX units and they have already been used on an estimated 650,000 commercial flights since the very first one, a Malindo Air service, took off on May 22, 2017. That's an average of just 3.08 fatal accidents per million flights. Most people would consider that a very small number.
But in the ultra-safe modern age of flying, it isn't. According to Boeing's own statistics, which include all jet services from 1959 to 2017, the rest of the 737 "Next Generation" family has a combined fatal accident rate of just 0.08 per million departures.
For the 777, Boeing's long-haul workhorse, the rate is 0.18. Other popular jets can boast similarly reassuring numbers. The 767? 0.1. The A330? 0.19.
And a clutch of models have a flawless record, including the 747-800, the A350 and the 787 Dreamliner.
In fact, to find a fatal accident rate worse than that of the 737 MAX, you'll need to look exclusively at models no longer in production. The figure for the DC-8, not built since 1972 and now little more than a museum piece, is 4. For the aforementioned 707, out of production for 40 years, it is 4.28.
Concorde sits at the bottom of the table. It was involved in just one fatal crash but only flew 90,000 times – that's 11.36 fatal crashes per million departures.
Least safe: The supersonic Concorde. Photo: AP
The safest aircraft models
Fatal accident rate per million departures
- A320/321/319neo - 0
- 717 - 0
- CRJ700/900/1000 - 0
- A380 - 0
- 787 - 0
- 747-800 - 0
- A350 - 0
- C Series - 0
- A340 - 0
- E170/175/190 - 0.06
- 737-600/700/800/900 - 0.08
- 767 - 0.1
- A320/321/319/318 - 0.1
- 777 - 0.18
- A330 - 0.19
- 757 - 0.2
- 737-300/400/500 - 0.25
- MD-80/90 - 0.32
- F100/F70 - 0.36
- L-1011 - 0.56
- A300-800 - 0.6
- A300 - 0.61
- BAe 146 & RJ70/85/100 - 0.69
- 727 - 0.73
- DC-9 - 0.78
- 737-100/200 - 0.89
- DC-10/MD-10 - 1.29
- BAC 1-11 - 1.38
- 747-100/200/300/SP - 1.46
- MD-11 - 1.79
- A310 - 1.9
- F28 - 2.31
- 737 MAX - 3.08
- DC-8 - 4
- 707/720 - 4.28
- Concorde - 11.36
What about Russian aircraft – and the Sukhoi Superjet?
Statistics for Russian aircraft are hard to come by, but some of most popular models from the Soviet era would almost certainly make the lower end of our table. The Tupolev Tu-104, for example, the first Soviet jet airliner (of which 200 were built), was involved in a remarkable 33 hull-loss accidents resulting in 1,028 fatalities, according to the Aviation Safety Network database. The Ilyushin Il-18, of which an estimated 678 were made, had 97 hull-loss accidents resulting in 2,483 deaths.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russian manufacturers have been unable to compete with the Boeing-Airbus duopoly, and few Soviet-era aircraft are still in service. However, Moscow firm Sukhoi, historically associated with military planes, has attempted to revive the fortunes of Russia's civilian aircraft industry with its Superjet 100. This new model, like the 737 MAX, has also had a troubled introduction.
In May, a Superjet 100 operated by Aeroflot burst into flames at Sheremetyevo International Airport during an emergency landing – 41 of the 78 occupants died. It had taken off from the same airport just minutes before, with reports suggesting lightning struck the aircraft during its ascent. This followed a fatal accident in 2012, when a "Welcome Asia!" promotional flight from Jakarta crashed on Mount Salak with dozens of journalists and aviation executives on board.
This accident, in which everyone died, was blamed on pilot error – the flight crew ignored the terrain warning system, believing it to be malfunctioning, and were engaged in conversations with prospective customers, inside the cockpit, minutes before the crash – but there are also lingering questions about the Superjet's reliability.
Mexico's low-cost carrier Interjet, one its few foreign buyers (many were put off by the 2012 disaster), claimed money back from Sukhoi last year for persistent technical problems. Ireland's CityJet bought seven Superjets but within months returned them all to the leasing company from which they were hired.
The Telegraph, London