The Boeing Co. 737-800 jetliner that crashed in Iran on Wednesday, killing 176 people, including at least 63 Canadians, is one of the world’s most heavily used commercial aircraft, with hundreds flown by carriers from American Airlines to WestJet.
The plane is the most popular variant of Boeing’s 737NG (Next Generation) family, the third generation of its best-selling 737 aircraft. Launched in the early 1990s, the jets are the predecessor to the newer 737 Max, the model that has been grounded worldwide after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.
Some 7,000 737NG jets have been delivered to customers over the past quarter century, Boeing data show. That includes the 737-800 plane lost Wednesday by Ukrainian International Airlines, which the carrier said was built in 2016 and most recently serviced on Monday.
Experts say the Boeing 737NG series has among the industry’s best safety records, although not a spotless one. Among the major crashes in recent years involving 737NG aircraft was a March, 2016, FlyDubai flight that killed 62 and a January, 2010, Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed shortly after takeoff and killed 90.
Wednesday’s crash near Tehran was the 10th time a 737NG aircraft was involved in a fatal event involving an airline passenger, according to Todd Curtis, an aviation safety analyst for the website AirSafe.com. The plane family has a record of roughly one event involving a passenger fatality for every 10 million commercial flights, which is the lowest rate among modern aircraft that have flown several years, he said.
“It’s been operating at a low risk for quite some time,” said Mr. Curtis, a former safety engineer at Boeing.
Unlike the 737 Max, which has problems with a flight control system that was added on to the model, the 737NG is a veteran workhorse – the culmination of several decades worth of experience with previous 737 models, Mr. Curtis said. Engines on the 737-800 are made by CFM International, a joint venture between U.S.-based GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines of France.
Calgary-based WestJet has 113 737NGs in operation, including 48 737-800 models, said spokesperson Morgan Bell. The company remains confident in the safety of its fleet, she said. Air Canada does not operate any 737NG models, spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said.
For Boeing, Wednesday’s crash marks yet another crisis as it continues to grapple with the fallout from the global grounding of the 737 Max since March, which has cost the company more than US$9-billion so far. The plane maker faces dozens of lawsuits from families of victims who died in Max accidents as well as from shareholders and airlines.
“This is a tragic event and our heartfelt thoughts are with the crew, passengers and their families,” Boeing said in a statement about the Iran tragedy.