Two deadly plane crashes killing 346 people in the space of five months, both involving Boeing 737 Max 8 jets, has compelled several countries across the globe to play safe and ground these aircraft. On Sunday, an aircraft of this model operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed in Addis Ababa killing all 157 passengers and crew on board, including four Indians.
China yesterday ordered domestic carriers to ground nearly 100 Boeing 737 MAX 8s. Noting "similarities" between the two incidents, China's civil aviation administration said operation of the model would only resume after "confirming the relevant measures to effectively ensure flight safety". This is a big blow for Boeing since China is an important market, accounting for about one-fifth of worldwide deliveries of Boeing 737 MAX models.
But the bad news for the US plane maker does not end there. Monday also saw Indonesia, Mongolia and Ethiopia temporarily ground all Boeing 737 MAX 8s while South Korea joined the list today. Going a step further, Singapore and Australia have temporarily suspended operations of this aircraft in and out of their airports.In addition, several carriers, including Cayman Airways, South African airline Comair, Aeromexico and Brazil's Gol Airlines, have independently decided to suspend operations of this aircraft model pending reviews while pilots with Argentina's Aerolineas Argentinas have reportedly flatout refused to fly the jet. In all, at least 25 carriers around the world have grounded their 737 MAX 8s so far.
But, according to New York Times, at least 18 carriers, including Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, Air Canada, all boasting over 20 of this aircraft model, continued to fly them till Monday. It estimates that around 195 of these planes out of a total of around 350 continue to be in service.
What about India?
In India, Boeing 737 Max 8s are operated by two airliners - Jet Airways and SpiceJet. Jet Airways owns five of these planes, but all of them were previously grounded due to the airline's financial troubles. But SpiceJet continues to fly its fleet of 13 Max 8s.
India's aviation watchdog Directorate General of Civil Aviation said it had reviewed recent snags and defects reported in the Indian Boeing 737 Max 8s and had found "no significant concern". However, it issued strict safety guidelines for flying these planes yesterday. Among other things, the regulator said that pilots flying these planes must have at least 1,000 hours of flying experience while the minimum experience level for co-pilot is 500 hours.
What is the problem with these planes?
The 737 is hailed as the best-selling airliner in history - and the Max is the newest, most fuel efficient version. However, comparisons with the previous crash - last October a Max 8 flight operated by Lion Air crashed into the Java Sea killing all 189 people on board - has spurred safety concerns.
According to The Indian Express, in both fatal flights, the pilots tried to return to the airport a few minutes after takeoff but were not able to make it back. And both flights experienced drastic fluctuations in vertical speed during ascent, while negative vertical speeds should typically be recorded only when an aircraft is about to reach its destination and departs from cruising altitude.
Could a problem with the new software system on these planes -- the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) - be another common factor? In the case of the Lion Air crash, a malfunction had prompted MCAS to command a dive and the pilots were not able to correct it. Only time, and further investigations, will reveal exactly what went wrong in the Addis Ababa crash.
What is Boeing doing about this scare?
The company issued a statement yesterday outlining software enhancements it has been working on "to make an already safe aircraft even safer". The list includes updates to the MCAS flight control law, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training. "The enhanced flight control law incorporates angle of attack (AOA) inputs, limits stabilizer trim commands in response to an erroneous angle of attack reading, and provides a limit to the stabilizer command in order to retain elevator authority," said the company. "Boeing has been working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on development, planning and certification of the software enhancement, and it will be deployed across the 737 MAX fleet in the coming weeks. The update also incorporates feedback received from our customers."
With agency inputs