Grounding Boeing 737 MAX 8 isn't the answer, fixing accountability and rooting out issues with aircraft key to allay panic

Boeing has been quiet about the crash, but on Monday the FAA advised that there would be software upgrades to the MCAS on board all Boeing 737 MAX aircraft by the end of April 2019.

Ajay Awtaney March 13, 2019 12:56:46 IST
Grounding Boeing 737 MAX 8 isn't the answer, fixing accountability and rooting out issues with aircraft key to allay panic
  • This has been the second hull loss for the newest line of narrow-body aircrafts, of which over 350 are currently in service at 59 airlines around the globe

  • India's DGCA decided late on Tuesday to ground the aircraft. Regulators of China and Indonesia ordered the the same action

  • Why is everyone panicking and pledging to not fly the aircraft? Many airlines which have taken the decision to keep these aircraft in the air, have faced the ire of passengers who either want the ability to switch from their 737 MAX operated flights, or have termed it the Flying Coffin

It has been only about three days since a Boeing 737 MAX 8, registered to Ethiopian Airlines, crashed 6 minutes after it took off. At least, 157 people, including 8 crew members were on board the plane, with no survivors reported. This has been the second hull loss for the newest line of narrow-body aircrafts, of which over 350 are currently in service at 59 airlines around the globe.

An earlier crash of Lion Air’s 737 MAX 8 a few months ago is still being investigated, but the storyline so far, sounds erringly similar. Although there is no data or proof to point in the direction that the same problem occurred on both the aircraft leading to the loss of two planes and 346 lives, and it would take a long time to establish the facts, public perception has already put two and two together, to figure that it is the plane which is the risk factor.

India's DGCA decided late on Tuesday to ground the aircraft. Regulators of China and Indonesia ordered the the same action. Many countries, including United Kingdom, European countries such as Netherlands and France, Singapore and Australian regulators have banned the operation of this aircraft in their respective territories. Many airlines have voluntarily grounded their fleets as well.

Grounding Boeing 737 MAX 8 isnt the answer fixing accountability and rooting out issues with aircraft key to allay panic

Representational image. AFP

On the other hand, airlines in the USA continue to operate the aircraft, believing in its capability to deliver a safe flying experience to their passengers. As per the US FAA and other experts, there is no reason to ground the aircraft at the moment. In fact, RyanAir is pressing ahead with the induction of the aircraft in their fleet next month.

So, why is everyone panicking and pledging to not fly the aircraft? Many airlines which have taken the decision to keep these aircraft in the air, have faced the ire of passengers who either want the ability to switch from their 737 MAX operated flights, or have termed it the Flying Coffin. The reason is simple – it is panic.

In the earlier Lion Air crash, it seems the pilot had trouble engaging with a new anti-stall system, called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was installed on the new MAX variant of the aircraft. Unfortunately, it was determined that the anti-stall system was not adequately informed to the airlines to be able to build it into their mandatory pilot trainings, and hence, there was no way to override this system. Boeing claims they filed this information in the pilot manuals.

In the Ethiopian Airlines 302 crash, the pilots struggled to control the aircraft after take off, and requested to return to the airport. Available data indicates that the jet’s rate of climb was erratic and that the aircraft was on a very high airspeed of 440 miles per hour very close to the ground.

Boeing has been quiet about the latest crash, but on Monday the FAA issued a statement that advised that there would be software upgrades to the MCAS on board all Boeing 737 MAX aircraft by the end of April 2019.

One school of thought has called into question the pilot training, but that should not be the case here given the commander of the flight had logged 8,000 hours of flight time before this flight. Ethiopian Airlines has been one of the safest airlines to fly with globally as well, and that reflects their investment in training and safety.

So what would it take to make the 737 MAX 8 a safer airplane? Wrong question I say. Who is at fault? We don’t know just yet. It would require more time and effort to determine the cause of this fatal accident. Safety is the primary focus of everyone who participates in the aviation ecosystem.

It would be wrong to assume that corporate greed overtakes the preference for safe flight. At the end of the day, the crash of an aircraft is the blemish on the record of the airline and the aircraft maker. And hopefully, they realise that they won’t be able to sell many unsafe planes or tickets if there is a problem. So, it is in the best interest of everyone in the aviation ecosystem to fix whatever is the issue, when determined, in the shortest possible time frame, whatever the cost.

Till then, everyone is looking at Boeing for more definitive responses, and there will be more questions than answers in the near term. Let’s hope they find some soon.

The author is a business travel and aviation journalist based in Mumbai, and the founder of the Indian frequent-traveller website Live From A Lounge. He tweets @LiveFromALounge

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