By Rajan Philips –
Among industry watchers, Boeing 737 assembly line is considered a “marvel of lean manufacturing.” Within that impressive production line, the 737 Max 8 model was born as Boeing’s technological response to its competitors, Airbus and Bombardier, in the market for mid-size planes. After two devastating crashes in five months, first in Indonesia last October and then last Sunday in Ethiopia, the whole fleet of nearly 400 Max 8 model planes have been grounded worldwide. The two crashes killing everyone on board, 189 in Indonesia and 157 in Ethiopia, are a sad anomaly in an era of improving aviation safety.
Not since the grounding of McDonnell Douglas DC-10 in 1979 by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) following the crash of a DC-10 plane on a runway at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport moments after take-off, has a fleet of planes been grounded based on concerns over design and operational problems. And never before has the grounding of an aircraft brand been undertaken on a worldwide scale.
DC-10 had serious design flaws and safety problems. The Chicago crash involving a domestic (Chicago to Los Angeles) American Airlines flight in which 258 passengers and 13 crew members perished, is the deadliest aviation accident in America. Within a month the FAA withdrew the model’s flight certificate. The company ended the production of DC-10 and shifted to production of other models with good safety records and business success. The future of 737 Max 8 depends on the results of the investigations of the two crashes. And there is far too much at stake for Boeing to think of stopping the production of what has been, until the crashes, its highflying model.
There are also global implications for the airline industry, passengers, governments and national economies. Until the crashes, 737 Max 8 was the bestselling aircraft in the world and the fastest selling aircraft in Boeing’s history. It had notched up 5000 orders from 78 airline customers, in 27 countries, at a total value of US$ 600 billion. Less than 10% has been delivered to-date. Of the 379 Max 8 planes that have been sold, 108 are in the US and 76 are in China. There are 15 of them in Indonesia out of a 250 order. China is reported to have ordered two-thirds (amounting to 40% of Boeing’s profits on Max 8 sales) of the total 5000 orders and was also the first to order the grounding of the current Max 8 fleet used mostly by domestic carriers. Boeing is also caught up in the trade spat between Trump and Beijing. The final end to the trade standoff is anticipated to include China’s commitment to buy more than US$1-trillion of US goods including Boeing planes. China has not accepted a single plane after Trump precipitated the trade dispute and the new Boeing crisis will add another difficulty for resolution.
Boeing has announced that it will not be making any new deliveries until the safety of the plane is established by independent authorities. It had no choice although the company has not stopped its production line. For the 78 airline customers with outstanding orders for the new 737 Max 8 planes, the suspension poses different problems. In the short-term airlines are scrambling to reschedule hundreds of flights that were already scheduled with Max 8 planes. Finding replacement planes is not easy for a number of airlines. Finding space for the parked planes is another problem. More crucially, the suspension also upsets the planned retirement of old aircraft by different airlines. This may result in extended use of older planes by airlines with limited resources at the risk of compromising safety. The two decades of this century have been remarkable for aviation safety and the air crashes that now occur are primarily the result of aging planes and poor maintenance by carriers in developing countries. Except the last two crashes, which even though they occurred in Asia and in Africa, they both involved the newest version of Boeing 737 jet that has been one of the more reliable passenger travel aircrafts for half a century.
Lion Air is Indonesia’s largest private airline serving 120 destinations, 20 of which are international. It has a fleet of 125 planes, and another 250 on order for expansion. 186 of the latter are Boeing 737 Max 8 planes. In 2011, it failed to obtain IATA (International Air Transportation Association) membership) due to safety concerns. The airline has had 16 incidents and accidents since its inception in 1999, including the October Max 8 crash and two more after that. Lion Air has recently been working with Boeing to improve its navigational performance. The October crash of Flight 610 will be another setback to the airline.
The implications of last Sunday’s crash for Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopia itself are tragic and unfortunate. Once known for its famine, mass killings, recurrent coups and political oppression, Ethiopia, a country of nearly 90 million people, is emerging as a successful federal constitutional democracy in the African continent. Between 2004 and 2009, the IMF rated it as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and in 2007 and 2008 as the fastest growing African economy without petroleum resources. And the World Bank has noted that between 2004 and 2014, the Ethiopian economy grew by 11% on average annually.
The Ethiopian Airlines, the national carrier, is the symbol of the country’s pride and growing prosperity, serving 102 international and 20 domestic passenger destinations and 44 cargo destinations. The Airlines has long been professionally managed without political interference regardless of the regime in power, so much so it was called “a capitalist success in Marxist Ethiopia,” by the Christian Science Monitor in 1988. It is the most successful and reliable airline in Africa and Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa is the hub connecting international capitals to destinations in the African continent. The hub-function of Ethiopia was evident in the international breakdown of the victims of last Sunday’s tragedy.
Ethiopian Airlines has a total fleet of 112 planes, majority of which are Boeing models. The fleet includes three (excluding the crashed aircraft) 737 Max 8 jets while another 25 are on order. What will happen to the outstanding order will depend on the results of the investigations of the crash. The examination of the two black boxes is being undertaken in France as Ethiopia doesn’t have the facilities to carry out the examination. In a significant move that has been welcomed by analysts, Ethiopia chose to send the black boxes to France and not the US to demonstrate objectivity and avoid perceptions of conflict of interest .
The world’s three largest airlines are all in America: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Their operations are primarily domestic and serve fewer international markets than European and Middle Eastern airlines. American Airlines is not even within the top ten international airlines serving fifty or more countries. Yet, with a fleet size of nearly 1000 and recording the highest annual aggregate of passenger-kilometres, American Airlines is the target for fierce competition among passenger aircraft manufacturers, the leading companies among whom are Airbus (France), Boeing (US), Bombardier (Canada), Embraer (Brazil) and Tupolev (Russia). Industry analysts trace the genesis of Boeing 737 Max 8 to the competition between Airbus and Boeing to be the supplier of choice for American Airlines.
Boeing 737 Max 8 is a narrow body plane like the prototype, but can fly further (6,750 km range) and at higher fuel efficiency. It is a two-engine, single-aisle aircraft accommodating 210 passengers over a total length of 39.5m and a wingspan of 35.9m. Along with fuel efficiency, Boeing assured airlines that no extensive pilot training at significant costs will be required to fly the new aircraft. Economizing on fuel and training is a major competitive advantage for Boeing over its rivals. Both have been achieved through design modifications and technological sophistication. These changes are at the centre of what is suspected to have been the common cause behind the two crashes.
The new design involves bigger engines for fuel efficiency, but they are positioned differently from the original 737 models because of the engine size and the compact size of the aircraft. The new engine positions have changed the aircraft’s centre of gravity, potentially causing the nose to pitch up during flight which could result in the plane stalling. To address this problem, the design includes a new software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that will be triggered by a sensor when it detects that the nose is pitching too high. The maneuvering system will automatically push the nose down. Based on the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, it has been suggested that the sensor may have incorrectly triggered the MCAS to pitch the nose downward into a dive. It is also reported that the sensor on the plane was replaced before the crashing flight after pilots on four earlier flights had experienced problems in controlling the plane and receiving incorrect air speed and altitude information. The satellite data on the Ethiopian flight showed the final flight track to be similar to the Lion Air crash in Indonesia.
After the Indonesian crash, Boeing issued a safety warning on the potential for sensor failure and giving instructions to deactivate MCAS by flipping a switch. The problem could have been averted by giving proper information and training to pilots on operating the new plane. As has been reported, training was avoided to save costs on the premise that pilots with the license to fly 737 jets needed no training for the Max 8 plane. Even national regulators including the FAA have gone along with this and did not insist on pilot training. A number of North American pilots have also complained about inadequate training, but no training program was initiated in response to those complaints.
Instead, US and Canadian airlines were insisting that the plane was safe for flying and their pilots were handling the aircraft well. US and Canadian officials took time to ground the Max 8 while the rest world was already grounding the jet. Politically it was becoming untenable to postpone grounding until evidence of similar flight paths came from satellite pictures to justify grounding. The reverse would have happened in the sequence of grounding, if a plane had crashed in North America and not in Asia or Africa.
The day before grounding, President Trump took to twitter to blame it all on technology: “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly, old and simpler is far better.” And a follow-up: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot.” The two crashes are not the fault of technology, but are the result of competitive pressures that created an aircraft design and rushed it to the production line without adequate testing, and of the failure to give adequate training to the pilots to save costs even though there was information about a malfunctioning sensor and an overcorrecting software system. Technology has immensely contributed to aviation safety. It is in the application of technology that human beings are being tested and challenged and are being shown to be not always acting in the public interest. When it comes to aviation, the primary and the principal public interest must always be safety.