It’s not often that an aircraft model finds its way into the everyday lexicon, but when it does, you know it’s because it changed the world indelibly. The Wright Flyer, Clipper, Concorde, Jumbo Jet and Whale Jet all resonate in the popular imagination because they’ve revolutionised air travel in one way or another, be it capability, capacity, connectivity, or comfort.
And then there’s the MAX.
Enough ink had been spilled on the chain of events that led to two brand new aircraft plunging from the sky and claiming the lives of 346 people. There is so much wrong with this picture, from the lengths Boeing went to circumvent additional simulator training (including mocking a request from Lion Air, one year before JT610 flew itself into the Java sea), the damning internal mails revealing how employees joked about the MAX’s deficiencies (“designed by clowns, supervised by monkeys”), a crucial piece of equipment with a single point of failure, pilots in the dark about the existence of MCAS, and Dennis Muilenburg walking away with US$62 million instead of an orange jumpsuit (but hey, he gave up US$15 million of stock!).
Memorials will be held, politicians will pontificate, and the saga will be taught in business schools the world over as a toxic confluence of corporate greed and lax oversight, but when all is said and done, the MAX isn’t going anywhere.
Following recertification by US regulators in November 2020, there are now more than 840 B737 MAX aircraft in service. And despite a rash of cancellations in the wake of the crashes, the lure of fuel efficiency has proven hard for airlines to resist- the order book numbers approximately 5,000.
Closer to home, the CAAS recertified the 737 MAX in September 2021, paving the way for Singapore Airlines to bring back its mothballed fleet. It now has 14 MAX 8s in active service, with a further 23 to come. All this to say, it’s only a matter of time before you encounter a MAX in the wild.
Given its troubled history, the MAX is always going to divide opinion. Depending on who you ask, it’s either become the safest plane in the whole wide world, or a fundamentally-flawed monstrosity that should never have seen the production line.
I personally tend to err on the side of pragmatism. While I’m shocked at how something like this could have happened in the modern aviation era, there’s just no way of avoiding the MAX forever.
In fact, I recently flew on this aircraft on a trip to Vietnam, and wanted to share some thoughts on the experience.
How is SIA dealing with the MAX issue?
When Boeing was mulling strategies for getting the MAX back into service, its playbook included hiring “Global Engagement Pilots” embedded with airlines, a war room with 24/7 surveillance of B737 MAX flights globally, and distributing talking points for flight attendants to reassure worried passengers.
US carriers, which were among the first to reintroduce the MAX, also allowed customers to opt out if they wished. For example, American Airlines had the following policy:
|✈️ American Airlines B737 MAX policy|
If a customer doesn’t want to fly on a 737 MAX aircraft, they won’t have to. In addition to the elimination of change fees for most customers announced in August 2020, in the immediate term, we’ll provide additional flexibility to ensure our customers can be easily re-accommodated if they prefer not to fly this aircraft type.
And if their aircraft type ever changes to a 737 MAX, there is no end to the flexibility our customers will have to feel comfortable.
Such policies are being quietly eliminated as the MAX’s return proves to be relatively uneventful, and most airlines have dropped the MAX label altogether, referring to the aircraft simply as the B737-8.
That has the potential to create some confusion, especially for airlines like SIA which operate both the B737-8 and B737-800 (inherited from SilkAir, when the brand was absorbed in 2021).
|Business Class||10 (Flat Bed)||12 (Recliner)|
|Seatback IFE||Yes||No (IFE via wireless streaming)|
|In-Seat Power||Business Class only||No|
While the two aircraft are radically different beasts, the monikers look the same to the untrained eye (especially if you’re in the habit of dropping trailing zeros). If the average traveller can’t tell his A350 from his B777, how much less this?
At first, it looked like Singapore Airlines would mirror the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies seen elsewhere. When it unveiled its new narrowbody aircraft cabin products, the press release made no mention of the MAX. Likewise, its fleet page uses the B737-8 terminology.
But to its credit, SIA has been upfront with customers as far as aircraft types are concerned. The booking screen clearly labels the Boeing 737-8 MAX and Boeing 737-800 NG (albeit hidden under the “more details” dropdown), ensuring there’s no confusion about what you’re getting into.
|💡 Protip: How to tell SIA’s B737-8 and B737-800 apart|
In any case, the B737-800s will eventually disappear from the fleet in the near future. They are currently only deployed on the shortest of regional routes, such as:
- Kathmandu (4h 35 mins- and certainly an outlier)
- Kuala Lumpur (40 mins)
- Medan (1h 30 mins)
- Surabaya (1h 55 mins)
This means that if you’re on a narrowbody Singapore Airlines plane, odds are it’s going to be a MAX.
My experience with the MAX
I recently flew the B737-8 to Da Nang, in order to finally redeem my Banyan Tree Lang Co voucher (trip report to follow).
This wasn’t my original plan. At the time of booking, flights to Da Nang were operated by the B737-800, and in a weird sort of way, I was actually looking forward to flying SIA’s “worst” aircraft, if only because it’s not long for this world (if that sounds insane to you, consider how I once booked a flight to Bangkok just to try SIA’s 2-3-2 Ultimo seats).
However, two weeks prior to departure, I received an alert that my seat assignment had changed. The aircraft had been swapped to a B737-8.
To be clear, I have no misgivings about flying the MAX. I’m well aware there’s a higher chance of dying in the car ride to the airport than on a plane, and although it doesn’t sit well with me that 346 people lost their lives while one man got much richer, I won’t go out of my way to avoid it.
I was, however, curious as to how Singapore Airlines would approach the matter. As it turns out, it was a complete non-event. From boarding to disembarkation, there was no special attention paid to the aircraft. Pilots sometimes make mention of the aircraft type in their welcome address, or the flight crew may mention it during the post-boarding announcements, but there was nothing of that sort.
I was on the lookout for any literature that might have been slipped into the seat pocket for jittery passengers, but found nothing beyond the standard safety card labelled “B737-8”; no MAX in sight.
And maybe that’s the right approach to take. Before returning to service, the MAX was subject to some of the most intense scrutiny in the history of commercial aviation. Fixes were made. MCAS now relies on two sensors, activates only once, and will never override pilot inputs. Pilots have undergone additional training, including time in a flight simulator.
There have been more than a thousand test and check flights, a multilateral validation effort overseen by not just the United States Federal Aviation Administration, but also the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, Transport Canada Civil Aviation, and Agência Nacional de Aviação Civil Brazil.
Boeing has also addressed some other non-MCAS related issues, such as software updates to address a potential horizontal stabiliser issue, modified wiring, and inspections for foreign object debris.
Long story short, this is as safe as the MAX will get. If the regulators have been suitably placated, then drawing attention to the matter would only be counterproductive. There’s enough superstition about flying as it is— Singapore Airlines still omits row 13 — and the last thing we need is to add to it.
That’s not to say we pretend it never happened. The enhanced safety features we now enjoy came at the cost of 346 lives, and anyone who’s ever stepped onboard an aircraft (or ship, or car) has been the beneficiary of safety enhancements written in blood.
Why are wind-shear detectors standard equipment on planes now? Delta 191. Why do we have fuel-inerting systems with nitrogen gas? TWA 800. Why are smoke detectors and automated fire extinguishers mandated in the cargo hold? ValuJet 592. Why do we have standardised phraseology in radio communications? Tenerife.
It’s no comfort at all to those who have lost a loved one in an accident, but aviation is an iterative process. All we can do is pray we don’t make the same mistake twice.
What about the cabin experience?
Given the bigger issues at play, it seems almost flippant to talk about the comfort and premium cabin experience. I’ll save this for a separate post, suffice to say it was more than adequate for the <6 hour routes the aircraft is designed to ply.
This may not be the best Business Class seat that Singapore Airlines has to offer, but I’d certainly choose it any day over a recliner on a B737-800.
For some brief thoughts on the matter, refer to the post below.
It’s been almost a year since the 737 MAX was recertified by the Singapore aviation authorities, and with more aircraft joining fleets every day, you’re bound to encounter it sooner or later.
I personally don’t have any safety concerns about flying this plane, and I don’t think it’s practicable to avoid it altogether anyway- though I understand it can be an emotive issue for some. It’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind, however, and flying remains one of the safest activities you can do.
I think that’s something to be thankful for.
Would you be willing to fly the B737-8?