Boeing has to navigate through extreme turbulence following the second deadly crash of a 737 Max jetliner, prompting some airlines to ground the best-selling plane.
China, Boeing’s most important market, has ordered its carriers to ground all 96 of Boeing’s newest 737 model, while Indonesia would also halt flights after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 went down in a field just six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa on Sunday, killing all 157 people on board.
Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Oman yesterday joined the list of nations to suspend the 737 Max.
The disaster in Ethiopia followed the crash of Lion Air’s 737 Max off the coast of Indonesia on October 29 last year.
The 737 Max is Boeing’s most important aircraft type, generating almost one-third of the company’s operating profit and forming the backbone of many global airline fleets, which use the model and Airbus’s competing A320 family on shorter routes.
First flown in 1967, the 737 has become the world’s best-selling commercial aircraft. The fourth generation of 737s, debuted in 2017, has bigger engines, incorporates more automation, has a higher range and uses less fuel.
As of January, Boeing had delivered 350 of the single-aisle jets to 46 airlines. In total, orders from more than 80 operators exceed 5,000 planes. Most sales are for the Max 8, the model involved in both crashes.
Yet two fatal crashes within five months have put the 737’s previously sound safety record under the microscope.
Following the Lion Air crash, it came to light that the 737 Max has software that forces the plane’s nose down in certain circumstances to prevent stalling. It also emerged that some pilots weren’t aware of the system.
Boeing said that shouldn’t have been the case and issued further guidelines on how to override the plane’s automated systems.
It’s too early to say the two crashes are linked. In both cases, the incidents took place not long after takeoff as the planes flew erratically and pilots asked to return to the airport.
Yet veteran crash investigators say there’s too little data to draw a direct tie at this stage of the investigation. Others note that it would be surprising if the Ethiopian Airlines pilots had been unaware of the procedures highlighted after the Lion Air crash.
While a US-ordered grounding of an entire model of aircraft is extremely rare, passenger confidence in 737 Max, however, has taken a hit.
Any airline crash is frightening. But two especially deadly ones, occurring so close together, involving the same airplane model, are a bigger cause for worry.
Flying is still the safest way to travel. And the aviation industry each year spends some $6bn for pre-emptive actions to ensure every aircraft flies safer, according to a 2016 estimate.
But the precious 157 lives lost in the ET302 crash is a grim reminder of enduring aviation safety gaps. Ensuring fool-proof improvements in defences against all possible scenarios is the best way to do it.
As for Boeing, it may need to take some short-term pain and long-term measures as well as soul-searching to win back the faith of its customers as well as the travellers.
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