Boeing Co. could face another major reputational hit after the crash of a Boeing 737-800 jetliner shortly after takeoff in Iran Wednesday, but experts say the extent of damage to the public trust depends on what caused Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 to go down.
The Ukrainian government initially ruled out an act of terror and cited engine failure in the aftermath of the crash, but subsequently clarified that “any statements about the reasons for the crash made before the commission’s decision are unofficial.”
Two flight recorders have been recovered and the results of an initial investigation could be available within 30 days.
Meanwhile, carriers in Canada expressed confidence in their fleets and said they are monitoring the situation closely. WestJet operates 48 Boeing 737-800s, Air Transat currently operates eight and Sunwing flies up to 40 depending on the time of year. Air Canada has none in its fleet.
“The safety and security of our planes, passengers and crew is of paramount importance to us,” a Sunwing spokesperson said in an email. “We conduct regular inspections and employ a strict maintenance program on all our aircraft including the Boeing 737-800s, as mandated by Transport Canada.”
The 737-800 is the most popular aircraft in use today, an industry workhorse that brings Boeing significant cash flow. The plane that crashed early Wednesday morning, killing the crew and all 176 passengers (including 63 with Canadian passports), is a different model but belongs to the same family as Boeing’s grounded 737 Max jet.
Two Max series jets crashed within five months, the first in October of 2018, killing 346 people. Those crashes were blamed on design flaws, and led to a halt in all sales of the Max. They also triggered lawsuits, Congressional hearings and a criminal investigation.
That legacy has heightened anxiety around the latest incident, and left some passengers at Toronto Pearson Airport apprehensive Wednesday about travelling on any Boeing jet.
“The ones last year, and now this? I know it’s a different model, but it’s definitely got me nervous,” said North Bay’s Tony Harrison who was getting ready to fly to Varadero, Cuba with his father.
“And with everything else that’s going on the world today, that doesn’t make me feel any safer about travelling either.”
David Wong, who was preparing to board a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong, added that he tried not to give it much thought.
“There’s not really a lot you can do about it, right?” he said.
California-based travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt said concern about the 737 Max has intensified scrutiny around the latest crash, adding that authorities “should be allowed to conduct their investigation and release their findings as soon as is practical to do so.
“Whether this will affect the public’s trust in the 737 will be a function of what caused the accident,” said Harteveldt, who is president of the Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco.
“The 737 Max has been grounded for nearly 10 months, and the plane that crashed was not a Max. Though the FAA identified a problem with the pickle fork — a part of the fuselage that attaches the wing to the aircraft body — on the 737NG series (which includes the 737-800) only 5 per cent of the 737NGs in service were found to have this problem.”
McGill University aviation expert John Gradek added that Canadian aviation authorities would have access to contents of the black box recorder on Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 should Iran decide to release the contents. He said if an investigation points to mechanical issues, Transport Canada could order the planes grounded.
Iran’s aviation authority has reportedly refused to hand over flight recorders from the Boeing 737-800, saying information in the black boxes would be assessed in Iran, but that Ukrainian officials could take part in the evaluation of the Kyiv-bound flight.
“We need to examine every possible version,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “Whatever the conclusions over the reasons for the crash in Iran, we will check the entire civil aviation fleet’s flight capability.”
By the time of the crash, major airlines had already begun rerouting or cancelling flights to avoid the airspace over Iraq and Iran after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration banned U.S. carriers from the area in the wake of Iran’s missile attack on U.S. targets in Iraq.
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Transport Canada says Air Canada has complied with U.S.-led restrictions on commercial airlines operating in the Persian Gulf region, though neither the government nor the airline has provided further information.
Air Canada is the only Canadian airline affected by the ban on flights by U.S. commercial carriers operating in Iran, Iraq and over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Iran.
The airline hasn’t provided details but Associated Press reported that Air Canada rerouted its flight from Toronto to Dubai through Egypt and Saudi Arabia to avoid travelling over Iraq.
WestJet partner Emirates Airline said its scheduled flights between Dubai and Baghdad were cancelled Wednesday for operational reasons.