Manufacturers must do more to ensure new planes are safe
Boeing has grounded its entire fleet of 737 Max aircraft over safety fears following Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed 157 people. More than three dozen nations had already either ordered the grounding of all these aircraft or banned them from their airspace. The ban is likely to stay in place until more details about the reasons behind the Addis Ababa crash emerge.
The company was under huge pressure to act as this was the second incident involving the same model in the space of five months; both without any clear external factors such as weather or fire.
As was the case with Lion Air crash near Jakarta in October, initial indications point to the onboard sensors going haywire. Both the aircraft climbed and descended several times soon after takeoff, all the while accelerating. In the Lion Air case, after a dozen seesaw moves during its 12-minute flight, it finally plunged into the sea. Data from flight-tracking websites show that the Ethiopian Airlines aircraft had the same issues during the few minutes that it stayed in the sky. In both cases, the pilots, unable to master the haywire plane, asked to and were allowed to return, but neither made it in time.
The ban is a huge challenge for Boeing. The Max is the most advanced version of its workhorse 737, which is the best-selling aircraft of all-time. It has nearly 5,000 orders for the Max, with dozens of airlines across the world having already taken delivery. Boeing is betting a lot on this plane and it is no wonder that, since the most recent crash, the company’s shares have lost more than 12 percent of their value.
Boeing now has to quickly take the plane back to the drawing board and identify the errors or bugs, which are believed to be in its sensors controlling the angle of attack — the direction of the nose of the aircraft, whether it is pointing up or down as it decides whether the aircraft climbs or descends. This is not the first time that Boeing has had troubles with a newly launched aircraft. Its long-haul 787 Dreamliner also had several issues soon after it was put into service eight years ago. The Dreamliner’s lithium-ion batteries were prone to overheating and catching fire, which led to the grounding of the aircraft across the world and also delayed subsequent deliveries by several months. This cost Boeing (or rather its insurers) hundreds of millions of dollars as customer airlines demanded compensation.
There are almost no cases where a new aircraft has been without technology-related problems on entering service.
After over four months of re-engineering, Boeing managed to fix the problem and the Dreamliner has become a much-favored long-haul plane thanks to its high fuel efficiency, low noise and modern design.
Boeing is not alone in facing issues with new launches. Its European rival, Airbus, had a series of problems with the Airbus A320neo, an aircraft comparable to Max on most parameters. An upgrade of the A320 family, which has been a best seller for Airbus, neo was launched only two years ago after several missed deadlines. But the launch was jinxed as many airlines were forced to ground the aircraft for several weeks due to engine troubles, with many pilots reporting mid-air shutdown of the engines or smoke or fire in the engines.
Over the last four decades, airplanes have become extremely high-tech gadgets, with thousands of sensors, cables and electronic chips in each plane. Most of the technology is welcome, as it is meant to enhance the safety of the plane and reduce the burden on the pilots by taking over most of the basic functions once it has reached cruising altitude.
But, as the manufacturers go for newer and better technology, they find themselves racing against time as they need to develop and deliver the aircraft at the earliest possible moment to keep the business profitable. However, in practically all cases, the planes miss their deadlines by years, with additional costs ensuring the budgets are exceeded. This, combined with fierce competition between the two main aircraft makers, has led to aircraft being delivered too soon, with customer airlines left to detect and report back on problems. There are almost no cases where a new aircraft has been without technology-related problems on entering service.
Technology integration is also meant to ease the load on the pilots and make the aircraft safer. But overreliance on technology could make today’s pilots less sure of what to do if something goes wrong with the onboard computers or if there is any other mechanical failure during the flight. In case of an incident, due to a lack of experience, pilots do end up making errors that worsen the situation. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers could partly address this issue with reinforced and repeated training to ensure that pilots remain abreast of the technology and are better prepared to handle such emergencies.
Though most aircrafts’ problems have been identified quickly enough to prevent major calamities, there have been incidents such as the two 737 Max crashes that have taken hundreds of lives. Both Boeing and Airbus need to ensure that their planes do not enter active service until all aspects have been checked and rechecked. This won’t guarantee that there will be no more crashes or technical mishaps and, yes, it will lead to additional costs and delays, but both companies have been extremely profitable for decades and it is time that they invested more in ensuring that passengers and crew don’t pay the ultimate price for keeping their shareholders happy.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.