You Don’t Really Need to Avoid the 737 Max When You Travel. Here’s How to Do It Anyway.

The chances of dying in a cataclysmic air accident—you and your fellow passengers consumed by a molten fireball, cascading down toward the Earth’s surface—remain astoundingly low. Roughly 115,000 commercial airplanes take off and land every day, and a significant number of them are made by Boeing, which holds a 42 percent market share in the industry. So, despite those two criminal, reputation-altering 737 Max disasters in 2018 and 2019, and a slew of nonfatal but viscerally horrifying mechanical failures that have recently beset the company (door plugs detaching over the Pacific Northwest, tires flinging off hulls, cockpit issues causing passengers to ricochet off the ceiling, and so on), the odds are good that when you step onto a Boeing aircraft, you will safely arrive at your destination.

And yet, despite those logical assurances, when I booked a trip down to Miami earlier this week, I did everything I could to guarantee my spot on an Airbus—Boeing’s eternal French nemesis, and a company that is not currently mired in spiraling controversy. (If you’re curious, JetBlue maintains a fleet made up entirely of Airbus planes, and they fly to South Florida from New York multiple times a day.) I have been afflicted by a fear of flying my whole life—on long-haul trips, I tend to spend most of the duration staring at the live map glowing on the back of the seat in front of me, constantly calculating just how far I am from the nearest airport in case of an emergency diversion. But over the past few months, my phobia has become a mainstream malady. It seems as if everyone, even those freaks who claim to enjoy the quaking of turbulence, is doing what they can to avoid suspect Boeing engineering.

“I’m flying down to Houston in late April, and most of the flights that went there were on United, and a lot of them that matched up with the times were all on Boeing,” Andy Hirschfeld, a reporter based in New York, told me. “I knew it was incredibly unlikely for anything to happen, but you’re not hearing any stories about Airbus right now, so I booked a ticket on JetBlue. That’s a risk in its own right. There’s only one or two flights to Houston from New York a day on that carrier. If it gets delayed or canceled, I’m screwed.”

Hirschfeld is lucky that his circumvention of Boeing required him only to find another flight. Others are going to far more drastic measures to allay their fears. Ellory Smith, a comedian in Los Angeles, told me that for an upcoming trip to Phoenix, she is considering making the brutal six-hour drive on Interstate 10, rather than boarding a Boeing jet. “It’s probably more dangerous to drive,” she said. “[But] vehicular death is so baked into our lives, whereas a plane crash is still shocking.” I’m with her. An 18-wheeler decimating my Toyota Corolla into a pile of glass and chrome sounds, frankly, so much more appealing than getting sucked out of a porthole at 30,000 feet.

Similarly, Derek Robertson, another journalist and a friend, told me that he added almost $1,000 worth of airfare for a work trip to this year’s SXSW to ensure that he would be sitting on an Airbus safe and sound. (“I’m not going out like that,” he said.) And last week, NBC tracked down a number of passengers who went so far as to switch their Boeing flights, after they were booked, to aircraft they found more reassuring. Leonyce Moses, a consultant in Virginia, ate a $70 fee for the trouble. “It was worth it for my safety,” she told NBC. In other words, Americans are in the midst of a Boeing reckoning. We may not fear death, but we certainly fear death like that.

Whether or not you find this to be rational behavior or a ridiculous overreaction likely hinges on your own assessment of the drama. As stated, midflight catastrophes—even during this concerning swoon in aviation history—are incredibly unlikely. By the time you have finished reading this article, several Boeing jets will have completed their journeys, with no incidents to report. Still, the outrage—and subsequent soft boycott—of Boeing’s product is fairly understandable. This many botches in such a short time frame is unconscionable, and there are real questions about the increased financialization of the company’s culture, which some have claimed has diminished its aerospace roots. Public pressure has mounted to the point that the company’s CEO, Dave Calhoun, resigned on Monday, so clearly Boeing is feeling the burn. (Should I mention the whistleblower who turned up dead from a gunshot wound? I’m trying to avoid New World Order ideation here, but, well, you know.)

However, if you’re the sort of person who wants to avoid Boeing aircraft regardless of the likelihood of a safety debacle, I asked Blaise Waguespack, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who specializes in the air travel industry, about the best ways to secure ourselves a seat on an Airbus when we purchase airfare. The solution is pretty simple: Just research the nitty-gritty logistical specifics of your flight, which are easy to find if you know where to look. When you book travel on Kayak or Google Flights—perhaps the two biggest third-party airfare retailers in North America—the specific model you’ll be boarding, Waguespack notes, is typically listed in the minor transactional details, a quarter of a scroll down the page. For instance: I just pulled up another New York–to–Miami flight in early May on Kayak, and in faint gray lettering on the itinerary, I can read that Spirit would be booking me on an Airbus 321 on the trip down and a 320neo on the way back up. You’ll be able to find similar clarity on most airline homepages as well. I put the same query into United and read about the many, many Maxes that would happily ferry me down to South Florida. (Yikes!)

“All that information is there,” said Waguespack. “If you’re a loyal flyer and you know your airline has a mixed fleet—where sometimes you’re on an Airbus and sometimes you’re on a Boeing, like United and Delta—if you expand the search parameters, you’ll be able to see the plane type.”

However, if you don’t want to go through that rigmarole—and if you want to avoid extreme edge cases, like your Airbus getting swapped out for a Boeing at the last minute due to a cancellation or a delay—Waguespack recommends simply looking up the fleet makeup of whatever airline you’re set to travel on. (As mentioned, JetBlue is a Boeing-free airline; same with Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant.) Yes, booking on Spirit to avoid boarding a Max is quite the devil’s bargain, but it’s nice to have the option.

For what it’s worth, Waguespack has a slightly more measured take on the recent rash of Boeing-related dysfunction. He notes that many of the incidents that have made headlines occurred on United flights that were using Boeing engineering. Does blame lie with the manufacturer or the airline? The chicken or the egg? Waguespack doesn’t have the answer. Right now nobody does. So, until they do, and the abyssal depths of Boeing’s protocol degradation are revealed for all to see, I won’t be taking my chances. Send me home ensconced in the dulcet rumble of an Airbus jet. Nobody wants to spend the entirety of a flight side-eyeing the emergency exit.