Flight Plan

Is a comeback in sight for the Boeing 737 MAX?

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on November 24, 2020

The MAX could be back in Indian skies in the second quarter of next calendar year, say industry watchers   -  REUTERS

While the US regulator has cleared the aircraft’s return to the skies, its European counterpart has reservations. What lies ahead? Experts share their views with Ashwini Phadnis

It made its debut amidst a lot of hype and expectations in 2017. Held out as one of the most technologically advanced aircraft to fly in international skies, the Boeing 737 MAX had 5,000 orders from more than 100 customers across the globe when it was launched, making it one of the fastest-selling aircraft coming from the Boeing stable. Among the airlines that ordered the MAX are American Airlines, United, the Dubai-based flydubai and Turkish Airlines.

Ironically, what was seen as the MAX’s biggest advantage — its superior technology — also became its biggest undoing.

Nineteen months after it was launched, a MAX aircraft flying for Lion Air and, five months later, another flying for Ethiopian Airlines, crashed, leading to the death of over 300 people. The Boeing 737 MAX was grounded across the globe in March 2019. During investigations, it emerged that there were problems with the technology that Boeing had used in the manufacture of the aircraft, which overrode pilot instructions, leading to the two fatal crashes.

After the investigations into the crashes and the worldwide slowdown because of the Covid pandemic, some good news came the way of Boeing and the airlines that had ordered the MAX, on November 18. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the final authority in certifying all aircraft manufactured in America as being safe for flying, rescinded its order that had halted commercial operations of Boeing 737-8s and 737-9s (the controversial MAX aircraft).

The FAA issued an Airworthiness Directive (AD), which spells out the requirements that must be met before US carriers can resume service, including installing software enhancements, completing wire-separation modifications, conducting pilot training and accomplishing thorough de-preservation activities that will ensure that the airplanes are ready for service.

However, this good news for Boeing and the airlines was short-lived. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) decided not to adopt the FAA AD. In short, airlines in the European Union and those countries that have adopted EASA regulations in totality will have to wait for the EASA AD before allowing their airlines to restart operations with Boeing MAX aircraft.

Globally, an aircraft manufactured by a country has to be certified by its aviation regulator for commercial operations. The FAA is the final authority in certifying all aircraft manufactured in America. Boeing, being an American company, has to get this final certification from FAA before the aircraft can begin commercial operations. But other aviation regulatory agencies like EASA can also insist on testing before allowing any variety of aircraft to fly.

Following the EASA AD, a pilot with a private airline in India, who has flown various types of Boeing aircraft, says that there will be a further delay in MAX restarting commercial flying.

He is of the opinion that it will be very difficult for MAX to come back after so many setbacks.

The India connection

In India, SpiceJet is the only surviving operator of the MAX aircraft. SpiceJet has ordered 155 MAX aircraft of which 13 were in its fleet when the aircraft was grounded and Jet Airways (which suspended operations last April) had five MAX aircraft in its fleet.

While senior officials of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) maintain that it will take some time before the MAX is allowed to fly in India, they add that they are watching the situation and will respond suitably. Captain Minoo Wadia, a former Air India pilot, and Air Accident Board Member told BusinessLine that the DGCA normally “waits for other countries to accept and then follows.”

Captain PP Singh, Senior Vice-President, JetLite, and currently examiner, Airbus 330, Nepal Airlines, puts things in perspective when he points out that the operators (airlines in India) will need to get their training plans approved by the DGCA, and then conduct pilot training before they can start re-operating the MAX.

“The aircraft has obviously been cleared with some required modifications. So, first those modifications will have to be carried out by engineering teams before the aircraft enters commercial operations,” he explains.

An Indian pilot who is currently not flying the Boeing variety of aircraft adds that the DGCA might insist on training of pilots on a MAX simulator instead of a generic New Generation simulator.

“The DGCA might also mandate extra training for initial approval to fly, apart from seeking additional exercises, each refresher specific to MAX,” he adds.

However, the pilot community is optimistic about the MAX’s return to Indian skies. While being categorical about the MAX flying in India, Captain Asim Villani, who has flown a variety of Boeing aircraft in the country, points out that airlines in India, as elsewhere in the world, cannot avoid the MAX for several reasons, including bringing down their operating costs, cutting down cabin noise and lowering emissions.

A former Indian pilot who has flown different kinds of Boeing aircraft believes it will be safe to assume that the MAX will be back in Indian skies in the second quarter of the next calendar year while another former Indian pilot who has also flown a variety of Boeing aircraft feels that with the FAA giving the green light, there should not be much delay in getting the MAX airborne. “I feel it should be up in the air latest by March 2021,” he adds.

For SpiceJet, the MAX being allowed to fly will mean it will be able to add another 2 lakh seats a week and roll out its expansion plans, says Nripendra Singh, Industry Principal, Aerospace, Defence and Security Practice, Frost & Sullivan.

The aircraft will allow SpiceJet to fly non-stop from India to Bali, a route the domestic low-cost airline does not operate at the moment.

Published on November 24, 2020

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