Aviation is widely regarded to be the safest form of travel. Unfortunately, the safety bubble popped last year when a Lion Air flight crashed soon after take-off. After five months, another flight from Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed similarly. The total death toll stood at 346, and there could’ve been more if regulators hadn’t stepped in.
Both the flights were on the Boeing 737 MAX 8, a next-generation aircraft that had been expected to fulfil narrow-body short as well as medium-haul flights. After all the aircraft had the latest technology. A combination of the latest Leap 1B engines, advanced avionics made sure that it was to deliver the reliability of the infamous Boeing 737 NG (600/700/800/900/ER).
But things didn’t pan out the way Boeing had planned. These two crashes revealed larger issues related to the sensor package, software and the way regulators had deemed the aircraft to be airworthy. Since the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines flight, the aircraft has been grounded for over 8 months.
Now that Boeing has claimed to have scrambled to get it back in the air by fixing all the issues will it fly again? Let’s take a look at how did we reach this stage.
The rivalry between Boeing and Airbus?
- A decade ago, the rivalry between Airbus and Boeing was at its peak. Airbus was garnering all the press with its game-changing A380 while Boeing was riding high on the 787 Dreamliner. These were long haul solutions, but the real money was to be made in the narrow-body segment.
- Airbus had the edge in this area because the Boeing’s all-conquering 737 was ageing. Airbus has developed an off-shoot of the A320 called the A320Neo and it had huge orders for its latest narrow-body aircraft which was now cutting into the market share owned by the Boeing 737.
- The A320Neo had efficient PW1100G engines but carried forward the same tried-and-tested fuselage. Airlines were convinced the new product could easily fit in their fleet and require less maintenance. Transitioning pilots to the new aircraft would also be seamless.
- Boeing had to outmatch the NEO family and ensure its supremacy remained unchallenged. In response, it developed the MAX series, a similar product to the 737 that carried forward the same fuselage but incorporated new efficient engines. But Boeing had to get it to the market fast to take on Airbus’s offering.
Developmental hell for Boeing in a quest to beat its arch-nemesis
- While Boeing had a sound plan in place, integrating a new engine in the 737 proved to be harder. The 737 families were designed decades back in the 60s. It required massive modifications including a shorter landing gear so that ground clearance is lesser. For tier 2 and 3 airports, the requirement of specially offloading vehicles was eliminated. On the flip side, the lower ground clearance meant that the new engines wouldn’t fit because they too had received an engine fan diameter upgrade.
- To perfectly fit the larger new engines, Boeing had to make minor changes in the design ranging from lengthening the landing gear to moving the engine slightly forward above the height of the wings. After tests, the company realized that these structural changes had changed the plane’s centre of gravity. This nudged the nose of the plane to automatically rise in regular conditions, requiring a manual trim to prevent a stall. To counter this, Boeing added a new system called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) that prevented the plane from raising its nose to extreme levels. The system would automatically adjust the horizontal stabilizer and bring down the nose. To make these adjustments, MCAS relied on data from the angle of attack sensors.
- These sensors were located on the nose of the plane and offer real-time data directly to the plane’s autopilot. In the case of the two crashes, the angle of attack sensor was found to be faulty. And additional backup sensors were a part of an optional package that Boeing offered while this should’ve been standard. To cut costs airlines did not opt for this add-on. Ultimately, the nose sensors were sending an incorrect reading to the auto-pilot, triggering the MCAS and automatically bringing the nose down.
- The pilots could override the system by applying a manual trim, however, they weren’t aware of the MCAS system. The appeal of an upgraded 737 was that pilots didn’t need the extra training which is why they weren’t trained for the MCAS. So they didn’t know that there was a faulty sensor feeding MCAS wrong data which could’ve been overwritten by the manual trim.
- Boeing wanted to make it easy for pilots to shift to the new aircraft and it was desperate for it to become airworthy fast. Hence, mentioning MCAS in safety manuals and simulations would increase the process for both regulatory approval and training for airlines. So, they skipped it altogether.
- Boeing also felt in its system safety analysis of MCAS that the pilots would be able to respond manually incase anything abnormal happened pretty quickly. They were wrong.
After the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the plane was grounded worldwide. Now regulators are waiting for Boeing to fix MCAS. It is clear, the MCAS system needs more data entry points along with reliable backups. Even the pilots need to be trained appropriately so that a fast manual override is possible in the worst-case scenario. In both cases of the 737 MAX crashing, the pilots were too late to overwrite the MCAS because they weren’t trained for it and weren’t aware the system existed.
What is Boeing doing to fix all the issues?
- In its response to the report from Indonesian regulators, Boeing said it was redesigning the angle of attack sensors which informs the anti-stall system so that it would now turn it on, only if both sensors agree.
- Boeing added, the MCAS would now only activate once to “erroneous” AoA data and would “always be subject to a maximum limit than can be overridden with the control column.”
- The company recently announced it could have its fleet of 737 MAX jets flying again by January as safety checks on the aircraft’s troubled flight software reach completion. It hoped the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the American regulator, would approve certification of the plane’s flight control software before the end of the year.
- “We know in both accidents there was a chain of events that occurred,” stated Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg adding that the software update will make the aeroplane even safer going forward. “I’m confident with that change it will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly.”
- A Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) was conducted and included officials from China, the European Aviation Safety Agency, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates — it even included NASA. Countries are cooperating to ensure the plane meets all safety norms and airlines can continue using the aircraft.
- As the relaunch of the 737 Max nears, Boeing executives have gone on a charm offensive. At the recently concluded New York Times Dealbook conference, its CEO again said that it will be one of the safest aircraft in history considering the amount of scrutiny it has gone through for it to come back into service post the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes.
How is India affected?
- Jet Airways and Spicejet were the only ones to order MAX in India. It made sense for them because they already have a huge fleet of 737 NG planes. Today, Jet Airways is long gone and it had taken delivery of 5 MAX 8s. Spicejet, on the other hand, has 13 of them and they’re all grounded. Spicejet has more than 193 on order and a few have already rolled out of the assembly line.
- Spicejet was rumoured to be in talks with Boeing at the Dubai Airshow in regard to the 737 MAX. The carrier is already the second-largest customer for the aircraft but is reportedly in discussions to order more, with chairman Ajay Singh hoping to secure them at a knockdown price. It is expecting a rapid delivery of more of the type once the grounding is lifted, and is anticipating having 25 737 MAX 8 at its disposal by early 2020.
- Once the aircraft is cleared to fly by Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s aviation regulator, foreign airlines will also be able to operate it to and from the country.
- MAX series is equipped with efficient engines that throw up to 14 per cent fewer emissions. Along with a new winglet design, the aircraft consumes less fuel, meaning cheaper fares and better margins for the airlines. This is important for both the consumers and the health of the industry in India.
Today, the narrow-body market has only two options — Airbus A320neo family and Boeing MAX series. It’s imperative for Boeing’s offering to be back in the sky soon for the sake of competition as a no industry thrives because of a monopoly.
There’s no doubt that 737 MAX series will be back in the air soon. Too many companies have invested in the aircraft and it’s practically impossible to ground it forever. Passengers will always be worried about safety since its reputation has been irreparably damaged, however, since there are so many stakeholders involved, this aircraft will likely fly again, so it will be interesting to see what kind of backlash or opposition it faces when it comes back.
One of the solutions that have been floated is a complete rebranding of the aircraft. Boeing could permanently change the name, however, ingenious marketing would be required to ensure there’s no fear left in the hearts of the consumers.