NORFOLK, Va. — It looked like any other Southwest Airlines flight: free pretzels, conspicuously cheery flight attendants, a mad dash for aisle seats.
Despite the business-as-usual veneer, many passengers who boarded a Boeing 737 Max 8 on Tuesday brought qualms aboard with their suitcases. But in contrast to the full-volume debate about the plane’s airworthiness playing out on the ground, the scene in the sky was a mix of blissful ignorance and quiet anxiety.
“I didn’t want to say it and get anybody nervous,” said Candice Neenan, 67, a community college instructor who flew home to Virginia on the Max 8, and who said she had checked on the model of her plane before departure.
Over the weekend, the Max 8 went from a prized new addition to airlines’ fleets to a source of international anxiety after a deadly crash in Ethiopia, the second wreck involving the model in only months. By Tuesday, a day before President Donald Trump announced the grounding Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft, U.S. regulators stood nearly alone in allowing the model to continue flying. And so, with as little discussion of the plane types as possible, passengers and flight crews booked on the Max 8 mostly forged ahead with travel plans and hoped for the best.
On a flight between Oakland, California, and Los Angeles, and another from Chicago to Norfolk, reporters for The New York Times flew on the Max 8 on Tuesday as regulators in China, Europe and much of the rest of the world ordered the planes out of the sky. The two flights, both on Southwest Airlines, were notable mostly for being mundane: earnest instructions about seat belt usage, passengers snoring softly or playing games on their phones, free Coke and coffee served at cruising altitude.
Flight 2315, OAK to LAX
The crew made the usual announcements about not smoking in the lavatories and not congregating in the aisles. The flight attendants waved their arms theatrically and pointed to the exits. There was even an announcement that two passengers had recently been married. What drew no announcement at all? The model of the plane.
“It should be a nice ride into LA,” the pilot said over the intercom before guiding the plane into blue California skies Tuesday morning.
The plane smelled of coffee and vinyl and the ceiling of the cabin was lit in blue and orange, the colors of the airline. The passengers spread out to empty seats in the back and for the most part kept to themselves.
Asked about the situation, many on the flight said they were unaware that the aircraft was the same model as the two flights that crashed.
“I really didn’t follow the news,” said Andreas Johns, an administrator at the University of California. “I’m not alarmed,” he said about his flight. “Things can go wrong. But I fly with Southwest pretty regularly.”
Ebony Wilson, who works in the tech industry in the Bay Area, reasoned that the flight was just a short hop.
“If I were going across the country I might feel differently,” she said. “But it’s only an hour.”
Others were more worried. Chiara Lesec, a digital marketing researcher who was flying to Los Angeles for a business meeting, had discussed the wisdom of taking the flight with her husband and researched the location of the safest seats on the aircraft.
“You have a better chance if you’re right behind the wing,” Lesec said.
Flight 2165, MDW to ORF
As passengers gathered at Gate B26 at Midway Airport in Chicago, sipping Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and wolfing down french fries, more and more governments announced that the Max 8 would be grounded: the Dutch, the French, then the entire European Union.
But as the shiny blue plane pulled up to the gate in Chicago, “MAX 8” painted in white beneath its nose, the focus was on lining up strollers for family boarding and explaining Southwest’s distinct boarding system to first-time customers. Just as in California, no official mentioned the plane model.
Some travelers — like Jon Roberts, 27, returning to Virginia after a work trip in Nevada — were happily unaware of the plane’s recent troubles.
“I was pretty much asleep the whole time,” Roberts said while waiting at baggage claim after the flight was over, when he learned for the first time that he had flown on a Max 8.
For frequent Southwest flyers, adept at differentiating between the different 737 models the airline uses, the Max 8 had been a favorite as it was added to the fleet over the past few years. Its overhead luggage bins are easier to latch than its older Boeing cousins. Its mood lighting offers a calming touch on hectic travel days. And, crucially for tall passengers, the headrest adjusts upward, making in-flight naps more plausible.
“There’s nothing wrong with the Maxes,” said Steve Ratliff, 68, a longtime Southwest customer who expressed faith in the airline’s maintenance protocol. “Nobody expressed concern that I heard of.”
Elsewhere on the plane, Monique Palmer, 57, was returning to Norfolk from a birthday trip with her family.
“I started praying,” Palmer said, upon learning the plane was a Max 8.
“I was a little concerned; I was a little nervous,” Palmer said after landing safely in sunny Virginia. “But I don’t know what else to do.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.