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Airlines Are Grounding Boeing 737 Max 8 Planes Out of Caution (and Fear)

Two recent deadly plane crashes of the model Boeing 737 Max 8 have prompted many countries to direct airlines to ground these planes out of fear that the crashes may be the result of a failure of the model. Not among those is the United States.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a statement regarding the continued operation of the 74 Boeing 737 Max 8 planes in the U.S., indicating it would not take action to ground these planes unless a safety issue is identified.

Globally, there are more than 340 Boeing 737 Max 8 planes registered, which completed a total of 8,500 flights during the week of February 25th, 2019, according to the New York Times. Despite so many successful flights, several politicians, including Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), have encouraged the FAA to take additional caution and ground flights until the conclusion of the investigations of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610.

This inflated sense of fear around Boeing 737 Max jets is, understandably, analogous to people's general fear of flying, which studies have shown is statistically much safer than other modes of transportation. Data from the National Safety Council showed the risk of dying as a passenger on an aircraft is one in 188,364, whereas the odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash are one in 103.

Flying phobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by persistent fear or anxiety before or during a flight that is disproportionate to the actual risk of flying. In Gavin I. Clark and Adam J. Rock's 2016 study, "Processes Contributing to the Maintenance of Flying Phobia: A Narrative Review," the authors explore the many causes and triggers of flying phobia in the context of other anxiety disorders. These include selective attention to threat cues (like airplane turbulence) and cognitive biases that overestimate the likelihood of negative flight outcomes. Other researchers have linked exposure to media coverage of airplane accidents and terrorist attacks to heightened fears of flying.

Though many airlines and individuals have been quick to call for the grounding of Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, investigations into the two recent plane crashes in Ethiopia and in the Java Sea near Indonesia have yet to yield any evidence that the plane model is to blame.*

*Update—March 13th, 2019: This post has been updated with the correct location of the Lion Air plane crash.