Late last evening India finally joined the growing number of countries grounding Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes following two deadly plane crashes killing 346 people in the space of five months, both involving this aircraft model. Announcing the development on Twitter, India's aviation watchdog Directorate General of Civil Aviation had added that these planes "will be grounded till appropriate modifications and safety measures are undertaken to ensure their safe operations".
Furthermore, the government has made it clear that this aircraft will not be allowed to enter or transit the Indian airspace from 4 pm today. The deadline, according to a DGCA spokesperson, was picked "to cater to situations where aircraft can be positioned at maintenance facilities and international flights can reach their destinations".
Here's all you need to know about this move, and its impact:
SpiceJet will take a hit
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's fleet of 13 Max 8s were very much in operation till the DGCA's new order came in.
"SpiceJet has presently announced cancellation of 14 flights for today and will be operating additional flights from tomorrow. Of the 76 planes in our fleet, 64 aircraft are in operations and we are confident of minimizing the inconvenience to our passengers and attain normalcy in our operations," tweeted Tushar Srivastava, the airline's Head of Communications. He added that a majority of passengers affected by these sudden cancellations have been accommodated by SpiceJet on alternate flights while the "rest have been offered a full-refund".
Impact on air passengers
Air fares in the country were already shooting up courtesy flight cancellations by Jet Airways and IndiGo, and with SpiceJet planes also getting grounded, they are poised to sky-rocket further. According to The Financial Express, spot fares - for flights booked 7-15 days before the date of travel - have risen by up to 20% on key metro routes since January this year, when the flight schedules were more or less normal. In the past month, IndiGo and Jet Airways have cancelled around 200 flights daily. Prepare for more cancellations in the days ahead courtesy the Boeing ban.
This will also impact domestic air traffic growth. The latter had already dropped to a 52-month low at 9.1% year-on-year during January mainly due to higher fares.
What is the Civil Aviation Ministry doing about it?
The Civil Aviation Ministry will hold an emergency meeting with the domestic airlines at 4 pm today to prepare a contingency plan to deal with the flight cancellations stemming from the ban on Boeing 737 Max planes and minimise inconvenience to passengers.
"While passenger safety is a zero tolerance issue, efforts are already on to minimise the impact on passenger movement as their convenience is important," Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu tweeted on Tuesday night.
Interestingly, the DGCA had said on Monday that it had reviewed recent snags and defects reported in the Indian Boeing737 Max 8s and had found "no significant concern" and had simply issued additional safety guidelines for flying these planes. 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.
The revised decision to ground these planes came following a similar stand by several countries across the globe following the Ethiopian Airlines' flight that crashed in Addis Ababa on Sunday, killing all 157 passengers and crew on board, including four Indians. The plane that crashed was a new 737 MAX 8.
Growing ban on the Boeing 737 Max 8s
China was the first country to order its domestic carriers to ground the nearly 100 Boeing 737 MAX 8s in operation, following this news. The past two days have seen Indonesia, Mongolia, Ethiopia, Oman and UAE follow suit. In addition, several countries started closing their respective airspace to these planes, starting with Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, UK and the European Union. India and New Zealand are among the latest ones to do this.
Several carriers, including Cayman Airways, South African airline Comair, Aeromexico and Brazil's Gol Airlines, have also independently decided to suspend operations of this aircraft model pending reviews while pilots with Argentina's Aerolineas Argentinas reportedly flatout refused to fly the jet.
However, the US and Canada, which has the maximum numbers of this aircraft model, continue to fly them. Yesterday, the US aviation regulator said that there is "no basis" for grounding Boeing's 737 MAX aircraft. "Nor have other civil aviation authorities provided data to us that would warrant action," Federal Aviation Administration chief Daniel Elwell said in a statement.
In a similar vein, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau clarified that the government currently has no plans to order the grounding of the plane but "all options are on the table".
What is triggering the global panic?
Before the recent Ethiopian Airlines crash, a Max 8 flight operated by Lion Air crashed into the Java Sea killing all 189 people on board in October last year.
The pilots of both fatal flights had reportedly tried to return to the airport a few minutes after takeoff but were unable to do so. 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.
About 350 Boeing 737 Max 8s were in service before the snowballing ban kicked off, with more than 5,000 of them on order. Sunday's plane crash sent Boeing shares tumbling, reportedly wiping off a whopping $24 billion from its market cap in just two days.
Meanwhile, Indonesia's Lion Air said yesterday that it would postpone taking delivery of four new Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets. The low-cost carrier - Southeast Asia's biggest airline by fleet size and a major Boeing customer with 10 Max 8 jets - said the jets had been on order for delivery this year.
Boeing, nonetheless, steadfastly insists it has no reason to pull the popular aircraft from the skies. The US plane maker issued a statement on Monday 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.
With agencies inputs
(Edited by Sushmita Choudhury Agarwal)