A fix for grounded Boeing 737 jet

  • Travel
  • Thursday, 20 Jun 2019

Airlines that are haemorrhaging money with grounded aircraft should be glad to know that Boeing has a fix for its B737 MAX 8 jet.

Boeing says it has a fix for its Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet that is currently grounded worldwide. This relates to a software fix for the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which is believed to have sent two planes into a fatal nosedive. This should be good news for travellers. Is it?

Airlines that are haemorrhaging money with aircraft idling on the ground – and shall have to spend yet more money on advertising and PR to reassure passengers their planes are safe – would be glad to get their birds in the air but not without solid evidence that the patch will work. The risks are too high.

Three major Chinese carriers – Air China, China Southern and China Eastern – perhaps prodded by the fractious US-China trade impasse, fired the first salvo demanding compensation for the grounded B737 MAX 8 jets. Others will follow.

While bullish about its fix, Boeing has failed to assume any clear responsibility for the crashes. CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who finally appeared on television half a year after the Lion Air crash in an egregiously botched PR exercise, continued to deflect the discussion towards pilot error – a tack the manufacturer has consistently taken.

Chain of events

Shareholders and questioning newsmen were offered waffle about a “chain of events” and “multiple contributing factors”, none of which seemed to involve Boeing. It was a line of argument that incensed the American Airlines pilots’ union who described as “inexcusable” Boeing’s tin-eared approach even when they suggested fixes right after the Lion Air crash. There have been testy and candid exchanges between pilots and Boeing. One commented, “These guys (the deceased pilots) didn’t even know the system (the MCAS) was on the airplane.” He is right.

Muilenburg’s optimism that when recertified the patched B737 MAX 8 aircraft will be among the “safest planes ever to fly”, may not be shared by passengers, many of whom opted out even before the US grounding came into force. In early March, Southwest allowed spooked passengers to switch planes if they did not wish to fly on a B737 MAX.

Software patch

A key problem is that the airline is attempting a software patch for what is really a design flaw (like sending a Sumo wrestler to a psychotherapist to convince him he can do ballet). The airframe with its larger engines and the increased fuselage length simply does not gel with flight dynamics. Initial performance was less-than-optimal and this is what necessitated the first fix – the MCAS.

How comfortable are you with your smartphone software updates? The process of catching and neutering bugs is by nature incremental. They first need to be found. If your phone malfunctions you cannot make a call. If a plane malfunctions it can fall from the sky.

The question of aircraft testing is another important area for scrutiny. Boeing is confident the plane is now airworthy. Fight safety is measured in terms of incidents per million flights and the aircraft manufacturer had by early May 2019 flown a little over 100 sorties. In statistical terms this strains to be meaningful.

It was later revealed that Boeing was unable to even simulate the MCAS nose-down stall-prevention sequence of the doomed aircraft. This has necessitated another critical software fix on B737 MAX training simulators. The issue may have been spotted earlier but the aircraft manufacturer did not believe simulator time was necessary. An iPad would suffice.

Awaiting flight certification

As the aircraft awaits flight certification from the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), frequent flyers might ask themselves exactly how much they really know about aircraft and whether they would fly on the MAX 8. How might they react if Boeing was to later rebrand the plane and christen it anew?

In January 2019 Toyota recalled almost two million vehicles to fix defective “exploding” Takata airbags. It is far harder to recall a 66,000kg aircraft and how airlines respond to the PR-perception challenge remains to be seen.

There is no doubt the original B737 is a workhorse that is absolutely safe. It has proven itself. The problem is with the cosmetic and commercial extensions on the MAX 8 that have stretched things beyond the design’s capability. The 737 is a ubiquitous piece of equipment. As Muilenburg stated, “On average 2,900 B-737 airplanes are in the air with half a million passengers on-board at any given time.” That’s half a million reasons to get it right this time – starting with the airframe.

Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist and the editor of SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com.

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