The deaths of 157 people on board an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 on March 10 was a tragedy that caused airline passengers around the world to question the safety of the planes we fly on.
That it happened less than six months after the crash of a near identical model, a Lion Air flight in Indonesia, had many of us hitting the panic button. Could the crashes be a coincidence, or was there a major safety issue at play? Aviation gurus began to ask how long it would take for 737 MAX 8’s around the world to be grounded. The answer, it became clear, was not long at all.
Within a couple of days, various governments began to take action. In less than a week, around 50 countries, among them Australia, New Zealand and the United States, grounded the planes or banned them from their nation’s airspace.
Even the company that makes the planes eventually had to act in the interests of safety. Boeing released a statement saying it “continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX” but agreed “in order to reassure the flying public, (it would) recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet”.
For governments and airlines to ground these planes wasn’t an easy decision and created enormous logistic problems. It was expensive too — not just the cost of scrambling to shift passengers onto other flights but the damage to Boeing’s share price as well. A 10 per cent drop in Boeing’s stock wiped more than $25 billion from the company’s market value, according to a CNN report this week. You can’t put a price on people’s lives though.
Grounding the planes was the only possible choice. And of course it was the right thing to do. Seeing safety as a priority gives passengers comfort their concerns and lives are being taken seriously.
Hundreds of Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft have been grounded indefinitely. Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP.Source:AFP
But the swift action to ground the planes really made me wonder. If governments like the United States can act so quickly on air safety, why can’t they act just as fast to make safety a priority and protect the lives of people on the ground as well? Because every day, statistically speaking, our safety is at much greater risk on the ground than it is in the air.
What am I talking about? Well, in the US, according to the National Safety Council, the lifetime odds of dying as a passenger on an aeroplane is 1 in 188,364. The odds of dying as a result of a gun assault are 1 in 285. This seems to suggest you’re 600 times more likely to die from being shot on the way to the airport than you are to die on the plane you board once you get there.
When the Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed on the other side of the planet, the Trump administration acted within days to ground both the 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9. But when variations of AR-15 style rifles are used time and time again in massacres on US soil — whether at a concert, a nightclub, an elementary school, a church, a high school, a shop or a synagogue — nothing of consequence, it seems, changes. The guns remain on sale, and it’s a waiting game until the next massacre. It’s as though people’s lives and safety have value in the air, but that value is diluted as soon as the plane lands and they clear customs.
157 people died when a Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft crashed just six minutes after takeoff. It was the second model to do so under ‘similar circumstances’ in less that six months. Picture: Jemal Countess/Getty Images.Source:Getty Images
Consider though, the New Zealand experience. A short time after the Ethiopia Airlines crash, like most other countries, New Zealand also suspended flights of this type of aircraft both inbound and outbound. Only one carrier, Fiji Airways, operates this model of aircraft to New Zealand, so the ban didn’t have as great an impact as it did in other countries, but nonetheless it was an important move in the interests of safety.
In a statement from New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority, it was said the decision followed “recent discussions with other aviation authorities, including the US Federal Aviation Administration”.
A willingness to act on air safety might be one thing New Zealand and United States leaders and authorities have in common. But a willingness to act on gun safety, it appears, isn’t.
The stark difference has been evident in the wake of Friday’s horrific terrorist massacre at a mosque in Christchurch.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised action immediately on the issue of guns. “I can tell you one thing right now,” she said. “Our gun laws will change.”
Her Attorney-General told a vigil the government would ban semiautomatic weapons. These are promises for now. How any laws end up being changed is a matter for consideration, but what is clear is a willingness for change is certainly evident. And that willingness is in striking contrast to the United States.
NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media as New Zealand discusses gun law reforms. Picture: Mark Tantrum/Getty Images.Source:Getty Images
While both nation’s leaders took genuine action on aeroplanes in the wake of an aviation disaster on the other side of the world, only one nation’s leader promised genuine action in the wake of a human disaster right at home.
Grounding the 737 MAX 8 planes was, of course, the right thing to do. But if it’s so important to protect people’s safety in the sky, isn’t it equally important to protect people’s safety on the ground too? Any life lost, whether in an aviation disaster or a gun massacre, ought to cause leaders to take swift and decisive action so that other lives aren’t lost in the same way in the future. If safety really is the number one priority, then it should be the number one priority whether we’re at 35,000 feet or our feet are on the ground.
Chris Urquhart is a contributor to news.com.au
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