On October 29, 2018 Lion Air Flight JT610 plunged into the Java Sea just 13 minutes after taking off. All 189 on board were killed in the tragic crash. The aircraft in operation was a Boeing 737 Max 8, delivered to the airline just two months earlier. Boeing would later admit that there was a problem with one of the sensors. Then on Sunday, another Boeing 737 Max 8, this time operated by Ethiopian Airlines bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off, killing all 157 people on board. It is the second crash of the 737 MAX 8, the latest version of Boeing’s workhorse narrow-body jet that first entered service in 2017. These incidents, within a span of 5 months has forced aviation authorities to ask the big question – Is Boeing 737 Max 8 safe to fly?
Boeing 737 Max 8 Operation in India
In India, Jet Airways and Spice Jet operate a few flights of the aircraft. While Jet Airways ordered 125 Max 8s initially, they deferred deliveries recently citing payment issues after receiving 6 aircrafts. On the other hand, Spice Jet ordered 116 Max 8s and has got deliveries of 7 aircrafts. However, both the airliners are not using all of the aircrafts and only a few units are in operation.
Post the Lion Air incident, DGCA ordered an enquiry - “Based on initial investigation of Lion Air aircraft accident, FAA (US Federal Aviation Administration) has issued emergency airworthiness directive, dated 7 November, and Boeing has issued bulletin, dated 6 November. Both the documents address erroneous high ‘angle of attack’ sensor input and corrective action for the same," said an official at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
The “angle of attack" sensor helps the pilot keep track of the angle of the aircraft nose and prevent the plane from nosediving. “This condition, if not addressed, could cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane and lead to excessive nose-down attitude, significant altitude loss and possible impact with terrain," the official added.
However, DGCA later cleared the carriers to continue using the Max 8 aircrafts. DGCA said there were “no significant technical issues” with the aircraft. Boeing also informed the airlines that there was no need for any further action or modification.
Problem with Boeing 737 Max 8
The 737 Max 8 has an advanced anti-stall feature, to prevent the aircraft from entering a “stall” if the pilots accidentally raise the nose too high. In case of the Lion Air flight, the sensor guiding this system was sending erroneous data. And investigations so far suggest that the anti-stall system may have pushed the aircraft down when it was flying level. Following the incident, Boeing said that the malfunctioning sensor on the MAX 8 could “cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane,” leading to “possible impact with terrain”.
Like with Lion Air, Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 was operating on a new aircraft. The 737 Max 8 was delivered to the airline on 15 November 2018, and had spent just about 4 months in service. Unlike Lion Air though, Ethiopian Airlines has a respectable safety record. There’s no information if the Anti-Stall System has any role to play in the incident.
Boeing released a statement on the Ethiopian Airlines incident – “Boeing is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a 737 MAX 8 airplane. We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board and stand ready to support the Ethiopian Airlines team. A Boeing technical team is prepared to provide technical assistance at the request and under the direction of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.”
The Future of Boeing 737 Max 8
As per the latest numbers from Boeing, the company has 5,011 orders for the 737 Max 8 from 79 identified customers and the top three identified airline customers are - Southwest Airlines with 280 orders, Flydubai with 251 orders, and Lion Air with 201 orders. There is no official word from any of these carriers as to how they will manage the crisis.
In India, the aviation regulator of India DGCA will seek information from Boeing as well as Jet Airways and SpiceJet operating Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in the wake of plane crash in Ethiopia, according to senior official. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) would seek information from plane maker Boeing and Indian carriers operating Boeing 737 MAX planes in India, according to the official.
On the other hand, China’s aviation regulator has ordered Chinese airlines to suspend their Boeing 737 Max aircraft, media outlet Caijing reported. Caijing, citing industry sources familiar with the matter, said Chinese airlines, which operate some 60 such airplanes, had received orders from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and halted their use on Sunday. The CAAC said it would issue a statement on its website regarding the 737 MAX soon. Media said its Chinese airlines operates more than 90 of the planes.
Why Airliners Prefer Boeing 737 Max 8?
The Boeing 737 Max 8 is said to be one of the most efficient and environment friendly aircraft in the recent history of aviation and we had an exclusive conversation with Alex Fecteau, Director of Marketing, Boeing Business Jets to understand this aircraft better. Here’s what he said – “The aerodynamics of the Boeing 737 Max 8 is improved to have 14% increased efficiency, which means a 14% reduction in fuel use. We have also made other important changes that make the Max the most efficient single-aisle aircraft in the market today.
This increased efficiency of new Max 8 means the aircraft can fly longer missions. So the 737 can fly at least 7-9 hour longer missions. The Max is a much more environmentally friendly airplane. The noise is also reduced by full 14%. This is a pretty significant step as we increase air traffic around the world.”
With Inputs from PTI, IANS and Reuters