Boeing 737 MAX 8: The world's most successful commercial jetliner is in trouble, but nobody knows what's wrong

The Boeing Company, maker of the 737, also happens to be one of the world’s oldest aircraft makers.

While the 747 is Boeing’s most iconic aircraft, it’s the 737 that is its bread and butter. This is understandable, given that the series is, after all, the most successful commercial jetliner yet made.

The Boeing Company, maker of the 737, also happens to be one of the world’s oldest aircraft makers. This is the company that built the aircraft (B-29 Superfortress) that dropped the first nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter (used to great effect in the various Gulf wars), the B-52 Stratofortress (which forms the backbone of the US Air Force’s bomber fleet) and, of course, the now-retired Space Shuttle.

Boeing 737 MAX

Over 10,000 aircraft have been produced since the 737’s debut in 1967, with the 10,000th unit rolling off production lines in March last year. The original design of the aircraft called for a short-haul (around 1,000 km) passenger aircraft for ferrying up to 200 passengers. The success of the line, however, has led to the expansion of the series to include longer-range aircraft with greater transport capacity.

Various upgrade kits, notably the addition of winglets — fitted to the very end of a wing — have helped increase fuel efficiency and keep existing aircraft relevant over the years.

Boeing 737 MAX 8: The worlds most successful commercial jetliner is in trouble, but nobody knows whats wrong

The Boeing 737 series first entered production in 1967. Image: Boeing

The 737-MAX variant, which first took flight in 2016, was the first of a new generation of 737 aircraft featuring a newer, more efficient design (including blended winglets) and a brand-new engine. The 737 MAX-8, currently in the news for crashing twice in a span of six months, is a longer version of the MAX and has a range of about 6,510 km. Except for the fuselage and other related changes, this is essentially the same aircraft. So far, over 5,000 orders have been placed, 350 of which have been delivered. The 737 MAX series has been so successful, in fact, the Boeing earned a record profit of over $10 bn last year and expects to do even better this year.

Boeing 737 MAX 8 specs:

  • Seating: 162-210
  • Length: 39.52 m
  • Wingspan: 35.9 m
  • Range: 6,570 km
  • Cruise mass: 63,700 kg
  • Fuel consumption: 2,020 kg per hr @ 833 kph
  • Cost: $52.85 mn

Modern passenger aircraft are designed to be intrinsically safe. Redundant control systems, automated safety mechanisms and advanced flight computers all but ensure that the aircraft are uncrashable. Aircraft also undergo a rigorous testing process before they’re certified by regulatory bodies such as the US-based Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). The NTSB (National Transportation and Safety Board) also has a well-deserved reputation for being exceedingly thorough in its investigation of air crashes. Recommendations by the board are almost considered sacred. It’s for these reasons and more that air travel is widely considered to be one of the safest means of transport.

In the case of the 737 MAX 8, two crashes of the same aircraft model within a span of six months, both in similar circumstances, is deeply disturbing and could be indicative of deeper issues with the aircraft design, especially given the rigorous testing it would have had to endure.

Lion Air Flight 610: In this instance, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed 13 minutes after take-off on 29 October 2018. An investigation revealed that the aircraft essentially plummeted into the sea at high speed with its engines still running. Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee determined that the airspeed and altitude indicators on the aircraft had been reported to be faulty on previous flights. On one previous flight, automated safety systems had erroneously detected a low airspeed and put the aircraft in nose down trim, i.e. the nose was pointed downwards automatically in an attempt to increase airspeed.

There are long-standing procedures in place for calibrating and setting up the MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System), which is the unit responsible for automatically managing the attitude of the aircraft in flight, and Boeing, at the time, claimed that the system was functioning normally. In effect, the blame was placed on pilot error. The final report is expected later this year.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302: The second crash of a MAX 8 occurred on 10 March 2019 where the flight plummeted into the ground just six minutes after take-off. While the matter is under investigation, initial reports indicate that the circumstances surrounding the crash were suspiciously similar to those of Lion Air Flight 610. In both cases, the vertical speed of the aircraft was unstable.

Aftermath

Following the incidents, regulators in various countries including India, China, Australia and the European Union ordered the grounding of the entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft.

Notably, however, the US FAA elected not to ground the aircraft. Boeing also maintains that the aircraft are perfectly safe to fly.

Boeing is working on a software upgrade and updates to the operation manuals for its entire 737 MAX fleet, which seems to indicate that Boeing is unofficially pinning the blame on pilot error and insufficient training. Whether pilot error or manufacturing defect, only a complete investigation has a chance of revealing the truth.

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