FAA Protecting Boeing? – Despite Assurance, Airlines Around The World Suspend Boeing MAX-8 Jets

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Mar 14 2019
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Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency that oversees American airspace, is notorious for ensuring the safety of civil aircraft in operation. Aeroplanes seeking an airworthiness certificate must meet stringent standards. In early 2013, the United States FAA grounded Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, after two lithium ion-battery related fires in the aircraft.


The FAA has grounded aircraft before, including those of U.S. manufacturers Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. On Sunday, after the eye-popping crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, killing all 157 people on board, including passengers from 35 nations, the FAA immediately sprang into action. The US aviation authority said it would help Ethiopian authorities investigate the crash.


But more importantly, Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell declared there was “no basis to order grounding” of the Boeing MAX-8, the best selling model that crashed minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa – despite the fact that an exact model of the plane belonging to the Indonesian budget carrier Lion Air Flight 610 had also crashed in a similar fashion in October, 2018.

US Department of Transport - Federal Aviation Administration - Building

Both flights plummeted a few minutes after takeoff, in good weather. And both were of the single-aisle 737 MAX-8 (also known as 737-8), the aircraft which Boeing started delivering in 2017 to replace the outgoing 737. That could not be just a coincidence. Since 2017, Boeing has delivered 387 MAX 8s and 9s – with about 5,000 more orders from more than 100 customers.


FAA’s action, backing the airworthiness of Boeing’s 737 MAX jets on Tuesday, is facing mounting criticism. Was FAA trying to protect, or at least buying some time, the U.S. aircraft manufacturer? In a typical situation, the world would take the cues from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, long considered the world’s gold standard for aircraft safety. Not this time, though.


In the U.S., American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines are still putting their 737 MAX jets – 74 in total – in the air, as a sign of trust after FAA’s endorsement. Apparently, the US aviation authority has not yet found a compelling reason to ground the new 737 planes. Even a number of senators, including Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren have called for the U.S. to ground the aircraft.

Boeing 737 Max 8 - In The Sky

After Ethiopia, China and Indonesia grounded their fleet of 737 MAX-8, other airlines around the world decided it was “better safe than sorry”. Out of 350 Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in operation worldwide, a staggering 54 operators were affected and have to decide whether to believe the FAA or take the necessary precaution measures.


Following China’s suspension of 737 MAX-8, at least 30 airlines have taken the same measure, including Australia, New Zealand, India, United Kingdom and even the European Union – leaving the U.S. increasingly alone in standing with the American-made aircraft. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency on Tuesday said it “is taking every step necessary to ensure the safety of passengers.”


However, suspension of the 737-8 model isn’t the only headache plaguing Boeing. Vietnam low-cost airline VietJet, which has 200 737 Max planes on order valued at about US$25 billion before standard discounts, says it will re-study and decide on its purchase. Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA, the biggest European operator of the Boeing 737 Max, said it wants compensation from Boeing on the costs of the plane’s grounding.

Boeing 737 Max 8 - Ethiopian Airlines

As investigators try to understand why the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 crashed, less than five months after an identical Lion Air plane plunged into waters off Indonesia, reports of pilots having repeatedly complained – but ignored – about safety flaw months before the latest crash have emerged. The Dallas Morning News has found at least five complaints about the Boeing model in a federal database – months before the crash.


The disclosures found problems with an autopilot system during takeoff and nose-down situations while trying to gain altitude during flights of Boeing 737 Max 8s. Records also show a captain who flies the Max 8 complained in November that it was “unconscionable” that the company and federal authorities allowed pilots to fly the planes without adequate training or fully disclosing information about how its systems differed.


In an October report, a pilot complained the Boeing Max auto-throttle system did not work properly even when they were engaged. The problem was rectified after the pilot adjusted the thrust manually and continued to climb. By Tuesday, Boeing’s market value has plunged by US$40 billion from its 2019 peak, after the company’s shares slumped about 15% since topping out on March 1.

Boeing 737 MAX Automatic Stall-Prevention System - MCAS

As part of its damage control, Boeing announced that all Max planes will be receiving updated flight-control software in the coming weeks. Still, it’s unknown whether this is just a workaround to prevent its stock price from dropping like a rock. The company has not indicated whether it will make physical changes to the aircraft affected.


The problem is the MCAS – the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. To fit the Boeing Max’s larger, 14% more fuel-efficient engines, Boeing had to redesign the way it mounts engines on the 737. This change disrupted the plane’s center of gravity and caused the Max to have a tendency to tip its nose upward during flight, increasing the likelihood of a stall.


Hence, the changes to the airplane’s automation system might have compromised the Boeing aircraft’s safety. The new design was so complex that some pilots may have problems with it, especially if they’re not given all the training and information necessary to maneuver. That means Boeing should not have allowed pilots without sufficient training to fly the 737 MAX-8.

Boeing 737 MAX 8 - Grounded Suspended


  • Update: President Donald Trump on Wednesday said that the United States will “ground” all Boeing 737 Max planes – effective immediately – becoming the last country banning such flights after the fatal Ethiopian Airlines crash.


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