Flight Plan

Many dreams grounded along with Boeing MAX 737

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on March 03, 2020

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft parked at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, US. Reuters   -  REUTERS

Indian carriers’ global ambitions were clipped on that fateful day, March 13, 2019

March 13 marks a year since India joined the worldwide grounding of the Boeing MAX 737 aircraft after two fatal crashes of its Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights killed over 300 people on board.

While those who lost their loved ones on these flights are still trying to come to terms with the tragedy, the airline industry too is grappling with a number of issues — not the least the question of whether to allow the aircraft to start operations after its manufacturer, Boeing, made relevant changes to the technology, the failure of which led to the crashes.

Airlines that operated this variety of aircraft, including SpiceJet and, earlier, Jet Airways, are counting their losses and flyers are divided on whether they will fly the aircraft once it gets back into service.

Needless to say, the ramifications of the grounding of the aircraft have been huge. Days after the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) decided, “Operations of B-737 Max aircraft will not take place from/to Indian airports and transit or enter into Indian airspace effective from 1030 UTC 13 March 2019 till further notice.”

UTC or Coordinated Universal Time is the primary time standard by which the world regulates clock and time. The DGCA order specified the 10.30 UTC time cut-off as it was expected that by then the MAX being operated by Indian carriers will return to their base.

Global ambitions on hold

India was not among the first countries globally to ban the MAX last year. The DGCA’s order still remains in place and has seen SpiceJet’s dream of operating non-stop from Indian cities to cities across the globe, which are between six and six-and-a-half hours away, being put on hold.

For example, with the MAX aircraft, SpiceJet would have been able to fly to Bali from Delhi. Airlines like SpiceJet ordered the MAX (it ordered 205 planes including 155 MAX) for extending their international operations because the MAX is not only a quieter aircraft but also has a 14 per cent fuel efficiency, helping it fly longer distances.

“Boeing MAX aircraft gave SpiceJet the leverage to extend its boundary of flying. This could potentially help it capture regions that were earlier not possible with the existing fleet,” says Nripendra Singh, Industry Principal, Aerospace, Defence and Security Practice, Frost & Sullivan. SpiceJet is the only Indian carrier that has 13 of this variety of aircraft of which 12 were flying at the time of the ban. The 13 MAX had already arrived in India but are now grounded.

A big question

Jet Airways, the other Indian carrier that had ordered the MAX “temporarily” shut down its operations on April 17 last year. It had five MAX aircraft in its fleet. The grounding of the aircraft meant that close to 3,50,000 seats on offer on SpiceJet and Jet vanished almost overnight. The grounding of the MAX also meant that SpiceJet not only had to put its expansion plans on hold but also that it was forced to pull out around 2 lakh seats a week while Jet Airways saw almost 1.5 lakh seats being withdrawn from its weekly flight schedules, points out Singh.

The grounding has had other implications, like SpiceJet getting a MAX simulator training centre in India as part of the compensation package that the manufacturer offered the airline.

Kiran Koteshwar, Chief Finance Officer, SpiceJet, told BusinessLine that Boeing had earlier agreed to set up a Boeing MAX simulator due to the regional exposure that the airline has. But with there being no clarity on when the aircraft will start flying again and both Boeing and the global airlines worried about how they will instil confidence in the flying public to fly on the plane again, how much help this training centre will be for SpiceJet remains a big question.

Published on March 03, 2020

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