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Some travelers are changing flights to avoid Boeing airplanes

One nervous traveler touches the outside of the airplane while boarding and prays before takeoff. Another brings anti-anxiety medication. A third has been watching YouTube videos narrated by pilots to understand what happens during flights. 

Such rituals have helped anxious passengers overcome their fear of flying. But in recent months, several travelers said, news of issues on Boeing planes has made these strategies insufficient and has threatened their ability to walk down the jetway. So they have come up with a plan: avoid flying on Boeing aircraft, even if it means re-booking flights. 

Leila Amineddoleh
Leila Amineddoleh.Courtesy Leila Amineddoleh

“I just can’t step on that plane,” said Leila Amineddoleh, an art lawyer who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. “Even if the chance of getting hurt on a Boeing flight, even with all these incidents, is slim.”

The chance is indeed slim: Aviation is the safest form of transportation by far, with significantly fewer fatalities than motor vehicles and trains, and aviation-related deaths and injuries are at nearly all-time lows.

But after a series of quality control incidents, starting with the dramatic door panel blowout on a Boeing 737 Max midair during an Alaska Airlines flight in January, Amineddoleh prefers to fly on non-Boeing planes. She recently asked for a refund for upcoming flights she had booked to Miami and Europe, and bought replacement tickets on Airbus flights, despite a layover in her new Europe itinerary.

“It’s an inconvenience,” she said, especially because she and her husband are traveling with their young daughter. “But I’m not going to feel guilty, because I think her safety is more important than fatigue.” 

Amineddoleh and three others told NBC News that the headlines about Boeing have made them uneasy, even though it’s not clear whether the problems were the result of manufacturing, maintenance or other issues. Earlier this month, flames came out of the engine of a Boeing 737-900 operated by United Airlines; dozens of injuries were reported aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by Latam Airlines that experienced a sudden drop; and a tire fell off a Boeing 777 operated by United. 

This week, NBC News reported on previously undisclosed issues related to a wiring flaw with the Boeing Max, which has been plagued with troubles since two deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019. Adding to the negative sentiment has been federal scrutiny of the safety culture at Boeing, along with the apparent suicide of a Boeing whistleblower. 

When asked for a response to the hesitancy among some consumers to fly on its aircraft, Boeing declined to comment. The company has previously said that it is “squarely focused on taking significant, demonstrated action with transparency at every turn.” 

Airlines have also said they are committed to safety: Alaska Airlines’ CEO “sincerely apologized” after the January blowout, and United’s CEO said in a letter to customers earlier this week that the recent incidents, while unrelated, “have our attention and have sharpened our focus.”

Still, aviation industry watchdog groups say air travelers are concerned enough that they are inquiring how they can select non-Boeing flights. 

“The good side is consumers are becoming more informed,” said Ed Pierson, a former senior manager at Boeing’s 737 factory who is now executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group The Foundation for Aviation Safety. “But here’s the sad part: You shouldn’t have to be dealing with this.”

Travel search engine Kayak, which offers the option to include or exclude certain plane models from flight searches, said there has been a spike in people seeking information about types of aircraft since the door-plug blowout. 

“While the overall fraction of users filtering the 737 remains small, usage increased following the Alaska Airlines incident in January,” Kayak CEO Steve Hafner said in a statement, adding that use of the filter was 15 times higher in January than in December but has since dipped to 10 times higher.

Both Kayak and aviation experts cautioned that airlines often substitute planes at the last minute, so customers who book non-Boeing aircraft may end up getting a Boeing anyway. There aren’t many other options: Planes made by Airbus, and sometimes Embraer, are the other common ones for major carriers.

Stephanie Walls
Stephanie Walls.Courtesy Stephanie Walls

Some airlines don’t fly Boeing planes at all — including Spirit and JetBlue. Others, such as Southwest, operate an all-Boeing 737 fleet.

Stephanie Walls, an IT project manager who lives in Houston and describes herself as an anxious flyer, said she recently changed an upcoming flight to Philadelphia to be on an Airbus. Despite the routines she has created to make flying less nerve-wracking — including praying, choosing a window seat and watching the flight tracker — she is not confident that Boeing has taken enough action to improve the safety of its planes.

Adrian Rojas
Adrian Rojas.Courtesy Adrian Rojas

“We really need to see that change being put in place pretty urgently,” Walls said.

Adrian Rojas, a Chicago-based communications consultant for a labor union, has done therapy to ease his fear of flying and takes anti-anxiety medication on flights. Unlike the other passengers who said they are avoiding all Boeing planes, Rojas specifically doesn’t want to fly Boeing’s Max series — and changed a return flight from Austin, Texas, for next month so he could be on an Airbus instead of a 737 Max.

“I just know that it’s something I would be thinking about a lot right as I get on the plane, so I’m just trying to limit that for my mental health,” he said.

Leonyce Moses.
Leonyce Moses.Courtesy Leonyce Moses

Even some passengers who feel relaxed in the sky are changing their flights. Leonyce Moses, a consultant who lives in Richmond, Virginia, loves to travel and said she flew one to two times a month last year. She had to pay about $70 extra to change an upcoming Phoenix trip to be on an Airbus instead of a Boeing plane, but “it was worth it for my safety,” she said. 

She acknowledged that aviation is very safe but said she is spooked nonetheless.

“I am not willing to take that risk,” Moses said.

A clinically diagnosed extreme fear of flying, known as aerophobia or aviophobia, is rare: Some estimates put it as low as 2.5% of the population. But as much as 40% of people say they have anxiety about flying.

The condition is treatable, according to Elizabeth Austin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UMass Chan Medical School. She recommended cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, which she said can be done using virtual reality programs that simulate getting on a plane.

She said she supported people with a phobia of flying switching their tickets to be on different aircraft — as long as they are realistic about how few dangers they face on any plane.

“It’s still an extraordinarily low-risk situation,” she said.

That is not enough for flyers like Amineddoleh to get on a Boeing plane. But she thinks she will be open to it again — someday.

“I really do hope that things change at Boeing, in part because it really makes my life easier,” she said. “When I fly to Europe, I always take direct flights. It’s the first time in years that I haven’t.”

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