Boeing’s latest Max version extended the 737’s popularity with a welter of orders, but two crashes claiming close to 350 lives in five months raise questions about the model’s future. (Reuters)
Boeing’s latest Max version extended the 737’s popularity with a welter of orders, but two crashes claiming close to 350 lives in five months raise questions about the model’s future. (Reuters)

Boeing 737 Max 8: Worrying hours for an aviation workhorse

  • With many countries grounding Boeing 737 Max planes, Boeing needs to start giving answers to flyers and airlines soon
  • The stakes are high, for the sale of Boeing 737 Max generates almost a third of the company’s operating profit

These are worrying hours for Boeing Co.—and tragic ones for 157 families. Once again, an almost brand new Boeing Co. 737 Max 8, belonging to the Ethiopian Airlines this time, crashed not long after take off as it flied erratically and pilots requested a return to the airport.

Unfortunately for Boeing, the disaster immediately drew comparisons with a Lion Air 737 Max crash in Indonesia in October that killed 189 people, pushing the Chicago-based plane-maker a step closer to a crisis and prompting questions about whether a design issue that arose during the earlier accident could be to blame for Sunday’s plane crash too. The stakes for Boeing and one of its most popular aircraft models are enormous. The sale of the 737 Max generates almost a third of the company’s operating profit.

On Sunday, China ordered its carriers to ground all 96 of the country’s 737s. Elsewhere, Indonesia and Ethiopia’s air safety regulators also grounded their fleets. South Korea began a special inspection of the aircraft. India’s aviation regulator may also require additional safety measures on the aircraft (SpiceJet and Jet Airways currently operate a number of these planes).

“The B737 Max design is dangerously flawed," said Mohan Ranganathan, a former commercial pilot and an aviation safety consultant based in Chennai. “There is a definite similarity between Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines Max crashes."

In the wake of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, it emerged that the 737 Max contains software that forces the plane’s nose downward in certain circumstances to prevent it from stalling. Some pilots weren’t aware of the safety system and felt they should have been told. The New York Times reported that the manufacturer wanted to keep costs incurred on additional pilot training to a minimum (the 737 Max competes with Airbus SE’s 320neo).

Boeing insisted, however, that all pilots know how to override the plane’s automated systems. In view of the Lion Air disaster, it would be surprising if the Ethiopian Airlines pilot was unaware of this procedure.

US pilot unions, who were critical of Boeing after the Indonesia accident for withholding information on design changes in the 737 Max, were cautious. “We would never speculate on the accident or anything at this point because it’s just too new," said Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. Passenger confidence has, however, taken a definite hit after the jet’s second fatal crash in just five months. Travellers from around the world took to social media to express fears.

Anatomy of a disaster

Flight ET302 took off from Addis Ababa a little before 8.40am local time and went down about six minutes later, killing all 157 aboard, according to a statement from the company. Its crew had reported an unspecified problem and requested a return to the airport, airline chief executive officer Tewolde Gebre Mariam said at a press conference.

The plane’s initial flight track was very unusual at a time when airliners typically climb steadily to get safely away from terrain and to reach altitudes where engines burn more efficiently.

Instead, it twice descended briefly during the first two and a half minutes after lift-off, according to tracking data provided by FlightRadar24.com. The plane’s “vertical speed was unstable after take-off", the company said in a tweet.

“You want to keep the airplane climbing, even during flap retraction, to get it away from the ground," said John Cox, president of Safety Operating Systems and a former airline pilot who participated in dozens of crash investigations. “That’s what makes the descent so unusual. That is something the investigators would want to look at."

Because the plane was apparently out of range of FlightRadar24’s Addis Ababa ground station, the flight track doesn’t include the last few minutes of the flight, including its final dive. Photos of the wreckage indicate it hit at a high speed and broke into small pieces.

Design flaws

Lion Air Flight 610 dove into the Java Sea in October about 11 minutes after take-off as pilots struggled to handle a malfunction that prompted an automatic safety device on the plane to repeatedly command a dive. All 189 people aboard died. While Indonesian investigators have identified multiple failures of the airline’s maintenance and raised questions about the pilots’ actions, one of the factors under review in the investigation is Boeing’s design. The US Federal Aviation Administration is working with the Chicago-based plane-maker on possible software change to reduce the chances that such a failure could cause an accident in the future.

Back in October 2018, the Lion Air plane lost altitude dozens of times before it crashed as the jet’s computers, thinking it was in danger of losing control, continually tried to push down its nose. The pilots countermanded the aircraft’s software over and over, pulling it back into climbs, until they failed to do so and it crashed.

The Ethiopian plane’s flight track is at least partially similar, said Cox, who flew earlier versions of the 737 during his career. However, for at least the time that it was tracked by FlightRadar24, it was flying mostly level at a range of 7,700 feet to 8,600 feet altitude.

Many other things could have caused the plane to climb and descend, Cox said. For example, if pilots were handling an unrelated emergency and were planning to return to the airport, they could have deviated from their altitude simply as a result of being distracted by the emergency, he said.

What’s more, Boeing issued a bulletin after the Indonesian accident alerting pilots that the plane might initiate a dive on its own and reminding them that a pair of switches in the cockpit can disable the motor that pushes the nose down. “All 737 pilots have been made aware of the potential and what would cause it," Cox said.

The fallout

But given the precautionary grounding of the planes by countries like China and Indonesia, the fear may spread to other economies. Such a scenario would obviously be a huge reputational blow to Boeing, which delivered more than 250 Max planes last year and is ramping up production to fulfil more than 5,000 orders. The plane is sold out until 2023.

The jet’s sales success is a big reason why Boeing’s shares are close to a record high and analysts expect it to generate about $15 billion of free cash flow this year. Following the crash, shares of Boeing sank 8.8% to $385.50 in early US trading. Should the decline carry through to the end of New York trading, it would be the biggest drop since January 2016. The stock could slide in US trading as concerns are increasing over the jet, said Eleanor Creagh, a Sydney-based market strategist at Saxo Capital Markets.

Besides, Chinese airlines accounted for about 20 % of 737 Max deliveries worldwide through January, according to Boeing’s website, and further purchases of the Chicago-based plane-maker’s aircraft are said to have been touted as a possible component of a trade deal with the US.

But all of that is secondary to Sunday’s tragedy. Up until now, it was to the credit of Boeing, Airbus and the airlines that passengers could board a commercial aircraft knowing that a crash was incredibly unlikely.

While this remains the case, that there’s even a sliver of doubt about a top-selling aircraft type is a shocking development. None of this will help Boeing in its race for supremacy with Airbus SE either. The duopoly depends on selling single-aisle planes like the 737 and Airbus A320, the workhorses of budget carriers, and increasingly, the fuel-efficient models of choice for longer-distance full-service airlines.

At present, the A320 is well ahead in that race, with about 6,500 orders for new-engine variants of its A320 family compared with around 4,700 for the 737 Max. If Boeing wants to draw level, it may need to take some short-term pain to win back the faith of its customers.

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