How 737 MAX has changed Boeing’s flight plan

| Updated on March 12, 2020

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington   -  REUTERS

It’s been a year since the aircraft was grounded, but financial and legal woes continue to swirl around the company, reports Ashwini Phadnis

In March 2019, within 19 months of its first flight with Southwest Airlines, the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft faced a global ban following two fatal crashes within a gap of five months in different parts of the globe. The first was a Lion Air crash in October 2018, which was followed by an Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019. India banned the aircraft on March 13, 2019.

A year after its global grounding, various explanations are being given on why the MAX failed. Industry watchers say Boeing was in a hurry to produce an aircraft which would be able to take on rival Airbus’ fast-selling A320 New Engine Option (NEO) aircraft.

The MAX was Boeing’s answer to the NEO. It was fitted with the Leap 1 B engine which was more powerful than previous engines. Boeing, however, faced a problem. It could not completely change the design of the MAX. If it did, the engineers and even the pilots would have to be retrained, which would not only cost money but also take time.

So Boeing decided to push the engine forward and upward on the MAX. This move, while ensuring that the design of the aircraft did not change, resulted in a slightly different problem — the aircraft’s characteristics changed. To overcome this, Boeing came up with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a flight control law (software) built into the MAX’s flight control computer, designed to help it emulate the handling characteristics of the earlier Boeing 737 Next Generation aircraft.

This helped but only partially, and could save neither the Lion aircraft nor the Ethiopian.



The ban

Indonesia airline Lion Air’s crash killed all 189 passengers and crew members on board. At that time, the accident was largely blamed on pilot error. Incidentally, Lion’s order of 230 airplanes at a list price of $21.7 billion had been touted as the largest commercial order ever in Boeing’s history, both in terms of dollar value and number of aircraft. When the deal was announced, then US President Barack Obama was in Indonesia to attend the East Asia Summit.

Five months after the Lion crash, on May 10, Ethiopian’s MAX crashed in Addis Abba, killing all 157 people on board.

The aviation industry stood up and took notice of the aircraft and its new technology promised by Boeing. Within hours of the Ethiopian crash, China banned the aircraft. Soon, others, including the UK, Singapore, Oman and India, banned it, too. The US, where Boeing is headquartered, was among the last countries to ban the MAX. Incidentally, American carriers had ordered the maximum number of MAX. These airlines did not use the MAX on India routes, though some other airlines, such as Oman Air, did.

Captain PP Singh, now an examiner on the Airbus 330 with Nepal Airlines, says the core issue which led to the grounding of the MAX was a problem with the aircraft’s instability in a part of the aerodynamic envelope, specifically at low speed and high angle of attack on the wing.

In layman’s terms, the pilots could not override the technology that the plane had been fitted with to take charge of the aircraft. This is what happened in the two fatal crashes, raising questions about the hurried manner in which Boeing had launched the MAX without paying enough attention to technological aspects.

Fastest-selling aircraft

The Boeing 737 MAX was the fas-test selling Boeing aircraft with about 5,000 orders from more than 100 customers worldwide. At its launch, the aircraft was touted to fly farther and carry more passengers than the previous generation Boeing 737.

In India, the aircraft was ordered by SpiceJet ordered 155 MAX aircraft, of which 13 are in its fleet) and Jet Airways (which suspended operations last April and has five MAX aircraft in its fleet).

The Boeing 737 MAX is a new engine variant of the world’s best-selling airplane, 737, which incorporated the CFM Leap 1 B engine technology. Needless to say, Boeing was banking heavily on MAX sales. The manufacturer claimed that the MAX would see a 10-12 per cent improvement in fuel burn over the most efficient single-aisle airplanes and a 7 per cent operating cost advantage over the competition. All these were supposed to be big pluses for the aircraft...

The prolonged grounding, which has lasted over a year, has taken a toll on Boeing and its management. The company now has a new CEO in David Calhoun, who took charge this January, replacing Dennis Muilenberg. The Chairman’s post was split into two.

The grounding of the MAX has also meant financial losses. The manufacturer is in talks with banks to secure a loan of $10 billion or more as it faces rising costs, CNBC reported in January. Later, it reported that Boeing had secured commitments of more than $12 billion from over a dozen banks. Boeing declined to comment.

Boeing has spent the year trying to correct the faults in the MAX and get it back in service. In January, it announced that it was “temporarily” suspending production of the MAX. Later in the month, Bloomberg reported that Boeing had closed the books on one of the worst financial performances in its history starting with a new estimate of $18.6 billion as the total cost of grounding the MAX.

First annual loss

Such was the financial impact of the grounding that, in 2019, Boeing reported its first annual loss since 1997. The manufacturer has also spent the year dousing many fires. It announced a $100-million compensation fund last July just minutes before a person who lost his entire family in the crash began to testify before US lawmakers. At that time, the widower had slammed Boeing’s pledge as “a press relations strategy to apologise to the cameras”.

In October, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association filed a lawsuit against Boeing, seeking damages for the 10,000 pilots represented by the association who had lost compensation due to the grounding of the MAX. In September, global agencies said the families of the victims of the two MAX air crashes would receive compensation from an airline fund started by Boeing. A website opened for the fund says the compensation will be distributed pro rata — each victim’s family would receive approximately $144,500, and families do not have to waive their right to sue Boeing to be eligible to receive the funds.

The grounding of the aircraft is also hurting the global aviation industry financially as those airlines which flew the MAX are facing losses. These airlines have also had to postpone their future plans, which had included adding the MAX to their fleets.

According to Nripendra Bahadur Singh, Industry Principal, Aerospace, Defense & Security Practice, Frost & Sullivan, it is difficult to arrive at the exact loss caused by the grounding. “The impact on an airline having a few MAX aircraft will be very different from that having several MAX. This becomes more complex when one considers the losses of the catering companies that were providing refreshments, airports that allocated landing and take-off slots, and the salaries and allowances for the operating crew of the 737 MAX,” he adds.

Singh says India didn’t have much exposure to MAX, as SpiceJet was the only domestic carrier operating the aircraft. Similarly, only a few foreign airlines operated it on their India routes. So the impact is not likely to be as much in India as, say, the US, which has the maximum number of MAX aircraft.

Getting the MAX back in the air

Worldwide, attempts are being made to get the MAX to fly again. Understandably, Boeing is the keenest, but signals are emerging from elsewhere as well. American Airlines is constantly in contact with the Federal Aviation Administration, US Department of Transportation and Boeing on this. Based on the latest guidance, American anticipates that it may resume scheduled commercial service on its fleet of MAX by this June. Once the aircraft is certified, American will run flights for its team members and invited guests.

However, with the other airlines that operated or ordered the MAX, their passengers, and not to mention their pilots, still not certain about how willing they are to trust the manufacturer and the aircraft, this may well be only the first step the aircraft takes to the skies again.

Published on March 12, 2020

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