Boeing jet involved in Iran crash in heavy use by Canadian airlines
Canadian airlines were once more exposed to questions about the safety of their fleets after a Boeing aircraft operated by a Ukrainian carrier crashed in Iran early Wednesday, killing all 176 people on board, including 63 Canadians.
It is not yet known what caused Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 to crash minutes after departing from Tehran’s international airport.
The model involved in the tragedy, a Boeing 737-800, is widely used by Canadian airlines. WestJet Airlines Ltd., Sunwing Vacations Inc., Transat A.T. and Flair Airlines collectively fly more than 100 of the jets, which have a good safety record after more than 20 years in operation. Air Canada does not fly this aircraft.
The crash came hours after missiles were fired in a conflict between the U.S. and Iran, leading some to speculate that the accident may have been tied to the conflict, though there is no evidence yet that that was the case. Others theories include engine failure or technical problems.
Iranian officials are refusing to hand over the black box to Boeing even though the manufacturer would typically be involved in an investigation.
The crash marks the third time in 15 months that a Boeing jet has been involved in a fatal crash minutes after takeoff.
The first two incidents involved Boeing’s latest 737 model, the Max. The Max fleet was grounded worldwide last March after the Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashes left a combined 346 people dead. Transport Canada was one of the last countries to ground the plane.
Those tragedies sent Boeing into a crisis. The manufacturer has spent billions of dollars fixing faulty software and convincing regulators to recertify the plane for flight. Last month, it temporarily froze Max production and fired its chief executive amidst reports that Boeing knew about the glitches but kept the information from regulators. Carriers have removed the Max fleet from schedules until spring.
Transport Canada will continue to monitor the investigations and will not hesitate to take appropriate action should issues that may affect the safety of Canadian travellers be identified
spokeswoman Frédérica Dupuis
The latest tragedy, however, occurred on an older model Boeing 737-800 delivered new to the Ukrainian carrier in 2016.
It also occurred during a military confrontation that already had airlines diverting flights from Iranian and Iraqi airspace. Air Canada hasn’t used Iranian airspace since mid-2019, but said Wednesday it is further rerouting flights to Dubai amidst the uncertainty around the conflict. Air Canada is the only Canadian airline with routes affected by U.S. restrictions on commercial airlines operated in the Persian Gulf Region, according to Transport Canada.
Iran will lead the investigation into the crash. Given the number of Canadian fatalities, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board has appointed an expert to receive and review factual information released by Iran. The TSB is ready to provide technical assistance if requested by Iran or Ukraine, it said in a statement. Transport Minister Marc Garneau said in a separate statement that he is in touch with his international counterparts and has offered assistance.
The Canadian carriers that use the 737-800 model expressed sympathies for the families grappling with the tragedy but said it is too early speculate what happened or what it could mean for their fleets.
“We continue to monitor the situation and will not engage in speculation,” WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell said in an email.
“We are confident in the safety of our fleet,” Bell wrote, adding WestJet safely operates about 400 Boeing 737 departures daily. It operates 48 737-800s.
Air Transat noted the reliability of the 737-800 model — it owned five and leased nine more at the end of December. It will implement any recommendations that may be issued by Boeing after the results of Iran’s investigation, spokesperson Marie-Eve Vallières said in an email.
A spokesperson said Sunwing, which operates more than 40 737-800s, is also monitoring the situation closely and employs a strict maintenance program.
Each time this happens, you increase distrust not only for the brand but for the overall airline industry.
Joanne McNeish, Ryerson University
Transport Canada said it would be inappropriate to speculate about the cause of the accident, but confirmed it is offering assistance in the area of aircraft design, maintenance and flight operations.
“Transport Canada will continue to monitor the investigations and will not hesitate to take appropriate action should issues that may affect the safety of Canadian travellers be identified,” spokeswoman Frédérica Dupuis said in an email.
While Canadian carriers stand by the 737-800’s safety record, Boeing’s brand may take a another hit regardless of the cause, Ryerson University associate professor Joanne McNeish said in an interview.
“People are associating tragedies with the Boeing brand,” said McNeish, who researches branding and trust. “Each time this happens, you increase distrust not only for the brand but for the overall airline industry.”
Trust takes a long time to build but can be lost quickly, McNeish said, something that can hurt a company’s bottom line. Boeing’s response to the Max crisis didn’t help as reports indicated it rushed to release the jets, McNeish said. She sees Boeing’s actions as part of a larger trend where consumer trust in large organizations has been eroded by the corporate push for short-term profit and deregulation.
Still, airline development and purchasing cycles are long, she said, so it would take time for airlines to buy different planes if consumers show reluctance to fly on Boeing jets.
Airline consultancy AirTrav Inc. president Robert Kokonis doesn’t anticipate consumers will shy away from the 737-800 aircraft. Unlike the Max fleet, it has an extensive track record.
“This particular aircraft has a very strong safety record,” Kokonis said, noting that thousands of 737-800s continue to be flown around the world.
“WestJet and Sunwing and Transat and Flair have all been very solid operators of that aircraft.”