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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Fear and flying

Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft. — Reuters file photo

I flew at least once on an Air Canada Boeing 737 Max 8 — I loved it.

I thought about that this week as Air Canada adjusted its schedule once again, dropping the aircraft from its roster until at least the end of June due to persistent problems in fixing the aircraft’s software and other flight systems.

The plane I was on was new, it was clean, it was comfortable, it was quiet — the seats didn’t feel like they’d been crushed by the backsides of hundreds of other passengers, day in, day out.

I remember thinking that it was the way air travel should be — the plane smelled liked a brand new car, rather than a bus overdue for a comprehensive interior steam-cleaning.

My window didn’t even have the familiar head-smudge where some earlier passenger had leaned against it and fallen asleep.

Being just another passenger heading out for hours of flight, most of all I liked the entertainment system — a big, clear new touch screen, a huge number of choices for viewing, an audio plug that wasn’t worn out and intermittent, chewed up by the constant traffic of headset plugs.

The cabin crew might still have been trundling the same old carts down the aisle and charging the same high prices for bread, but I sure loved the circuses.

I didn’t even stop to consider the Max 8’s safety — why would I?

It would not only be trite to say I look back on those flight and shudder — it would also be untrue.

Even now, looking back, I have a hard time working myself into any feeling that I was at risk, even though two of the Max 8 aircraft crashed as a result of anti-stalling computer system essentially overriding the pilots’ controls and forcing the planes to nosedive into the ground.

And I’m in a business that’s all about questioning whether or not shortcuts have been taken, whether those shortcuts or failings are in breast cancer tissue testing, water sampling, bridge repairs or police procedures.

The cabin crew might still have been trundling the same old carts down the aisle and charging the same high prices for bread, but I sure loved the circuses.

I’m no aviation expert. I assumed that, before an aircraft hurtles down the runway, packed full of passengers who are likely to die if the aircraft fails during flight, every bit of regulatory work has been done.

Not only that: I assumed that the necessary regulatory work would have been done by independent government regulators whose job, first and foremost, was to put the safety of passengers first, without considering the corporate timeline and profitability of the company building the aircraft.

But when it comes to regulation, so much occurs behind the scenes. Often, as businesses complain about regulatory hurdles and push back about what they term “red tape,” oversight gets handed over to the very companies doing the work in the first place.

Why, for example, have electrical inspectors looking over the work of skilled, experienced electricians who know what they’re doing?

Perhaps because those inspectors are not concerned with how long the job is taking, how much it’s costing, pressure to get things done from the customer, sunk costs, raw materials costs — and the list goes on.

How did a passenger aircraft get into the air when it turns out it needs more than a year and a half of additional work — and counting — to actually make it dependably airworthy? That’s a tough question for the regulators, who are now suddenly very tough.

And it’s not just airplanes.

How did a whole host of vaping materials get into the hands of teenagers without, apparently, any real work on the health risks of vaping? The simple answer, that it’s got to be safer than actually smoking, doesn’t do it for me.

Right now, Air Canada’s leaving the door open on just exactly when Max 8s will come back into service — if they ever do. (Given the press the aircraft has gotten, I imagine there will be a fair number of people who will be extremely uncomfortable flying in the aircraft even after all the necessary fixes and additional pilot training are complete.)

“Final decisions on returning the 737 Max to service will be based on Air Canada’s safety assessment following the lifting of government safety notices and requisite approvals by the FAA and Transport Canada,” Air Canada wrote.

Foolish me: as I settled into my Max 8 seat all those months ago, I assumed that had already been done.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


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