CEO Erik Venter of Comair, which has decided to continue using its Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane, which it bought in February. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
CEO Erik Venter of Comair, which has decided to continue using its Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane, which it bought in February. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

Hindsight, they say, is a perfect science.

That’s why it would be so easy, if wrong, to be critical of Comair’s initial decision not to ground its Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane after the crash that killed all 157 passengers and crew aboard an Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet  on Sunday. 

The critics probably felt vindicated on Tuesday when it emerged that Britain, Ireland, France, Norway, Belgium and Germany, as well as Australia and Singapore, had suspended the aircraft from their airports, joining China and Indonesia, the Cayman Islands and Ethiopia.

Australia and Singapore went even further, banning planes from the whole Max fleet, while others had only targeted the Max 8 model, according to a report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. A South Korean carrier suspended its 737 Max planes, while two airlines in South American did the same, Bloomberg reported. The suspensions put about a third of the global fleet of  up to 350 planes out of action, the news agency reported.

The model’s second deadly crash since October 2018 has caused widespread panic, fuelling a drop in Boeing’s share price that wiped billions of dollars off its value. They fell as much as 14% on Monday and the slide continued in early trade on Tuesday as groundings spread.

In a previous age, it would have been unthinkable to see customers, almost simultaneously across the world, demand to know which type of aircraft they would be taking. Since flying has become such a central part in the lives of middle classes, they have tended to have short memories when it came to air disasters. 

That’s partly a reflection of the understanding that flying remains extremely safe, even as individual accidents mean the absolute numbers of dead are horrifying. A lot more people die in car accidents, but they rarely do so in their hundreds in one go. There’s also an almost fatalistic acceptance that these events are unlikely to stop people from flying in the long term.

These days, social media and real-time commentary mean that panic can spread quicker.

This probably was part of the reason why Comair, which operates and the British Airways brand in SA, shifted from its earlier stance that it would not stop using its Max 8 jet, which it took custody of just  more than a month ago, and is still operational in the US.

The statement by Wrenelle Stander, the executive director of the airline, alluded to that, citing the need to protect “safety and confidence”.

The key word here is confidence as Comair had already stated that it believed the planes to be safe.

In the rush to attack the company’s initial response, critics should also acknowledge that US regulators have so far not changed their view that the model is airworthy. In fact, the zero tolerance policy adopted by airlines in Asia has thus far only been followed in the West by the UK, although Europe is poised to follow suit.

Reports indicate that it’s too early to establish whether there is a direct link between the crash in Ethiopia and the Lion Air disaster in Indonesia that also killed everyone on board in October, and that there were similarities as well as differences in the way the planes were lost.

After all the investigations have been concluded it might well turn out that Comair’s instinctive reaction to respect process was the wrong one and it is shown that there is something that justifies the permanent grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8 planes.

It would still be wrong to demonise the company, which acted according to established standards. These normally involve the airliner’s official certifying authority, which would be the US Federal Aviation Authority in this case, making a ruling before other governments followed its example. 

As of Tuesday, the FAA hadn’t changed its guidance and Comair was right to stay put.