If It’s Boeing, I’m Not Going

Up close with the 737 anxiety that’s turning us all into amateur aeronautics experts.

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Shiiko Alexander/Alamy, Issarawat Tattong/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Shiiko Alexander/Alamy, Issarawat Tattong/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Shiiko Alexander/Alamy, Issarawat Tattong/Getty Images

A few months ago, I flew with my daughter and boyfriend from New York to Palm Springs on Alaska Airlines. A week and a half later, a door on the same aircraft we’d flown, the Boeing 737-Max 9, fell off in the sky and sucked some teenager’s shirt clean off him. It freaked me out.

Since our trip, I’ve been following the Boeing news with alarm and disbelief, as a Boeing from Miami to Puerto Rico had flames shoot out of it in midair (747-8); a Boeing flight from Memphis to Houston rolled off the runway after landing (737 Max-8); a Boeing flight from L.A. to San Francisco lost a wheel on takeoff, which crushed a car below (777); and a Boeing flight from Sydney to Auckland nosedived in midair (787-9 Dreamliner). This is not a complete list of incidents with Boeing aircraft in 2024 — or a complete list of incidents with the Boeing corporation. Notably, two Boeing 737 Max-8 flights crashed in 2018, killing all 346 passengers. Also notably, well-known Boeing whistleblower John Barnett, who spoke out against what he viewed as widespread safety lapses at the company, was found dead of a gunshot wound in his truck last week.

For the past few months, the Boeing C-suite has been a bit like Kensington Palace, in that we keep fixating on it and asking: What is happening? Why would you do that? and Are you evil? Boeing kept the top brass safe in their jobs until literally this week, when CEO Dave Calhoun, who had blamed the door incident on “quality escape,” announced that he would resign by the end of 2024.

With spring-break season in full swing, I scanned the Boeing memes (a recurring motif: “If it’s Boeing, I’m not going”), dove deep into Boeing TikTok, lost hours in Boeing Reddit forums, and listened to the podcasts. Everywhere I looked, I was confronted with flight anxiety and amateur (but impressive) research on jets. Had we reached the point of too much “quality escape”? Were we collectively so skeeved by the never-ending cavalcade of terrible Boeing news that we were now changing carefully booked travel plans?

Yes, says the site, which now has a dedicated page headlined “Which Airlines Are Not Flying the Boeing 737 MAX?” (JetBlue and Delta fans can remain smug; Spirit fans, enjoy this fun new feeling.) No, says Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who, while pressuring Boeing to improve its safety standards, has also said he feels safe flying on Boeing aircrafts. Yes, said my friend Josh, who actively avoided booking a Boeing for a family trip this summer. “I was looking for flights back from Vancouver to New York, and I saw that it said Max 8 on Kayak, and I said, I’m not going to fly that,” he told me. “I actually chose a flight out of Seattle. So we’re driving three hours from Vancouver to Seattle,” he said. I clarified: “You’re driving three hours so you can avoid a Boeing?” “Yeah.” Then he’s boarding a JetBlue flight and flying home on an Airbus.

Michelle Borress, a mom of two, emailed me from the runway at Newark Airport, where her family’s 9 a.m. Spirit flight to Phoenix, aboard an Airbus, had been twice delayed because of mechanical issues. It was now 1:30 p.m. With no sign of imminent takeoff, she cracked and booked her family on a later United flight aboard a Boeing 737. She told me she had been anxious about flying Boeing. “But what’s fascinating to me is that in rebooking, I didn’t think for a second about Boeing, but rather just wanted to get away from Spirit,” she wrote. As her 8-year-old twin boys melted down next to her, she gave me permission to quote her posthumously and instructions on where her dog, Rosie, should be rehomed. At 3:19 p.m. she sent an update: Their plane had been grounded, they were reclaiming their luggage, and would indeed be flying on that Boeing. “I upgraded us all to more legroom, because if we are really going down today, we will do it in style,” she wrote. (They made it. And Rosie is fine.)

I noticed that sometimes people mentioned their children as a factor in their flight anxiety. “After news reports on all the Boeing issues, we decided to cancel our Alaska flight and rebook with a different airline,” Alexandra Cavoulacos told me, noting that she and her husband would be traveling together without their two young daughters. “It wasn’t worth the risk of something happening.” My friend Hayley said that she’s started looking more closely at the position of her seat when she books. On her last flight, she said, she “didn’t want to be close to the emergency door.” Hayley and her husband have four kids, ages 18 months to 11 years, and she confirmed that she’d held her youngest, Sunny, on her lap. I asked her, gently, if she’d changed her thinking about lap babies. After the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-Max 9 door-plug blowout, there were a slew of articles about how a baby could have been sucked out of the plane through the gaping hole in the fuselage. Hayley did not seem to have read the same articles. I am not sure if I would have had the spine to continue this line of conversation if I did not know Hayley would forgive me for bursting this particular bubble. I went in. She wound up screaming as I described the visual.

It turned out that I was ruining air travel for a bunch of people I interviewed. Kunal Merchant, a DJ, wrapped a tour of India in the fall and headed out for a North American tour last weekend. I asked him if he’d thought about what kind of aircraft he’d be flying on. “I’m definitely thinking about it now,” he said. His wife, Aparna Rao, a publicist, told me she had already been thinking about it. Kunal said he has faith in the system: “I feel like the industry of flying is too big to fail.” But he plays 13 cities this spring, and Aparna plans to double-check all his flights. (Checking whether your spouse’s plane is a Boeing is the new love language.)

Faith in the system underpinned a lot of the responses I got. “Overall, I fly a lot and have to remind myself that flying is still statistically the safest form of travel out there, even with everything coming to light,” emailed Cortney Harding, who travels extensively for work. “I just sat in the exit row on my last three flights on Qantas and didn’t even think about the door fiasco — maybe because I was in Australia!,” said Susan McPherson, who is a million-mile flier on United and Delta and has been to all seven continents. Even my friend Rebecca Soffer, the Modern Loss author whom I can fairly describe as “risk aware,” surprised me by being sanguine about not checking what kind of plane she and her family were about to fly home in from Mexico: “I’ve reached my saturation point for things I can freak out about.”

That said, even some die-hard fliers have made one key change: seat belts. “Since that one where the door pulled off and there happened to be no one sitting in the window seat, I have become religious about having that seat belt on,” said Macy Schmidt, who this summer will be traveling to conduct “Barbie: The Movie in Concert” at bandshells across the country. She said she now keeps her seat belt on in business class while lying flat to sleep on long-haul flights. (In the past month she’s flown to Paris; Abu Dhabi; Dubai; Los Angeles; and Tampa and Fort Myers, Florida.)

The issue of trust came up a few times. On the Odd Lots podcast, Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal said that his worry for Boeing was bigger than just aircraft safety. “I’m really worried about Boeing, and I don’t mean like flying on one per se,” he noted back in January. “If the preeminent maker of planes in America is having perpetual trouble making planes, that worries me about the country.” Later, on IG, I saw Joe and his family happily flying to Austin for a family wedding. I contacted his wife, the entrepreneur Brooke Moreland, to ask what kind of planes they flew: United, Boeing 737 on the way there and an Airbus back (no TVs). “Both flights were perfect with no issues, thank God,” she said, though, of course, “with two kids, TVs are very helpful.”

Sam Slaughter can’t help thinking about the fact that a Boeing whistleblower is dead. “There’s a part of me that is like, yeah, like you really shouldn’t trust anyone in a position of authority, ever, because it’s been proven again and again that these institutions and people will lie, and do,” he said, citing “the government, big business, the Illuminati,” but seeming like he was only half-kidding. “But if you distrust every institution, it takes a lot of energy. I don’t have the mental bandwidth.”

I decided to talk to someone who did have the mental bandwidth.

Will, 15, is an aerospace nerd and the son of my friend Lauren. He had asked her to check their aircraft before flying to Aspen for their family’s spring break. He told me he had logged almost 417.7 hours on a Microsoft Flight Simulator. He had glasses, braces, and a T-shirt that read “What part of L= Cl x r x (v²/2) x A don’t you understand?” L = Lift, and this is the Lift Equation, as in, lifting an aircraft off the ground.

Did Will think it was time to abandon Boeing? “No,” he said. Then added, “I have a strong preference toward not flying on Boeing, but if it’s the only option, then I’m okay with it.”

Will said a version of this “yes, but” statement multiple times during our 37-minute call, which included a 4-minute disquisition of the history of Boeing’s issues from 2018 until now. But I also wondered about the curse of knowing too much. I asked Will if understanding so much about how planes work meant worrying more, because he knew how things could go wrong. “I think that flying is very safe and I’m not worried about it pretty much at all,” he said confidently. “Even though these [Boeing] aircraft are unsafe, the standard for safety in aircraft is so high that, honestly, just the drive to the airport is much more dangerous.”

Once again, the fundamental trust in air travel was juxtaposed with a fundamental mistrust of Boeing. We were all making what we hoped was the best decision with the best information we had. But Boeing had planted a seed of doubt, just enough to make us feel a bit uncertain and more than a bit crazy, no matter what travel we booked. What part of L= Cl x r x (v²/2) x A don’t we understand?

Even Will, with his implacable certainty in the safety of air travel, couldn’t land firmly on one side. As we ended the call, he mentioned again that the Alaska Airlines 737 Max-9 door plug had blown out because the bolts weren’t tightened. “If they’re refusing to check that their bolts are tightened,” he wondered, “what else aren’t they checking?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of a traveler quoted. She is Michelle Borress, not Buress. The article incorrectly cited the first of the two aircrafts she traveled on as a “Boeing Airbus.” That flight was with Spirit Airlines, which does not have Boeing planes in its fleet. The text has been updated to correct these errors.

If It’s Boeing, I’m Not Going