Caution keeps B737 Max jet grounded

Courtesy Getty Images

Carriers which had been hopeful that the Boeing B737 Max jet would return to the skies as early as next month have deferred scheduled dates to operate the aircraft.

Earlier in August, Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenburg was hopeful that this would happen in the fourth quarter of the year and the airlines could look forward to capturing the peak holiday season traffic.

American Airlines which owns 24 of the Max jet is pushing the date to Dec 3. United Airlines with a fleet of 14 is moving it further down the road to Dec 19. It looks like both carriers are still hoping to cash in on what shall remain of the peak season including the Christmas holiday. But Southwest Airlines, the largest of the Max operators worldwide with 34 aircraft has moved the scheduled date to Jan 5 next year.

North of the border, Air Canada (which owns 24 Max jets) and Sunwing (with 4 aircraft) are not expecting the aircraft to be operational until next year. For Air Canada, it is Jan 8. And for Sunwing, even later in May. WestJet (with a fleet of 13 Max jets) too is not scheduling Max flights during the year-end holiday season, but said the company might consider an occasional flight to ease the demand should the ban be lifted then.

WestJet’s vice-president in charge of scheduling said: “It’s a little harder to unmix the cake at that point, but we would look at peak days, the Friday before Christmas (for example) where we can still sell seats and we’ll put the airplane back in.”

Elsewhere across the world, affected carriers remain non-committal on their plans. Other major operators until the jet was grounded include Norwegian Air Shuttle (18 aircraft), China Southern Airlines (16), TUI Group (15), China Eastern Airlines (14), Lion Air (14), FlyDubai (14), Turkish Airlines (12), and XiamenAir (10).

The B737 Max jet was grounded globally following two fatal incidents, one involving Indonesian carrier Lion Air in Oct last year and the other involving Ethiopian Airlines in Mar this year, both crashes claiming a total of 346 lives.

Quite naturally, carriers which own the Max jet are keen to see its early return to the skies. Many of them have cut back capacity to cope with the shortage of aircraft and are reporting losses as a consequence. United which took out 70 flights a day in its September schedule will see the number increased to 90 in December. Together, the three airlines – American, United and Southwest – have cancelled 30,000 flights. Delta Air Lines, however, stands to gain from these airlines’ disadvantage as it does not own any Max aircraft.

Budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle which plies the ultra-long haul is said to be on the brink of collapse, and the grounding of the B737 Max jet isn’t helping. According to former CEO Bjorn Kjos, the restriction has cost the airline US$58 million. Norwegian, which took the US by storm with its low fares, raising objection from American carriers, has cancelled numerous flights between Europe and the U.S.

Both the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing have suffered some loss of credibility in the wake of the two crashes. Stories about Boeing’s shoddy work at is plants and allegations of FAA’s relegating its oversight role to the manufacturer had hit hard. FAA’s delayed action to ground the Max jet after a number of authorities across the globe had done so also called into question FAA’s leadership role in the field.

However, FAA may have learnt its lesson. Following meetings between Boeing and various industry players where disagreement on the readiness of the Max jet was apparent, FAA had said, “Our first priority is safety, and we have set no timeframe for when the work will be complete. Each government will make its own decision to return the aircraft to service, based on a thorough safety assessment.”

Europe’s aviation safety watchdog – the European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) – for one will not rely entirely on a US verdict on whether the Max jet is safe to resume flying. It will instead additionally conduct its own tests on the plane before giving its final approval.

Transport Canada has insisted on the need for essential simulator training in early discussions when Boeing said it was not necessary since the Max jet was a variation of the B737 master model. The authority said it “will not lift the current flight restriction… until it is fully satisfied that all concerns have been addressed by the manufacturer and U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and adequate flight crew procedures and training are in place.”

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, multiple regulatory bodies around the world were not satisfied with Boeing’s briefing on the Max software update. They contended that Boeing “failed to provide technical details and answer specific questions about (the) modifications.” Boeing is expected to resubmit documents providing more details, and that these should be first approved by FAA before a follow-up meeting is convened. This in a way reminds FAA of its oversight role.

While affected airlines are looking forward to normalising their operations with the return of the B737 Max jet, what happens post-ban is another story. In fact, it may present a more difficult problem to handle than the technical aspects of the saga as the carriers try to win back the trust of travellers. If, indeed time is the healer, then taking the time to be absolutely convinced of the jet’s airworthiness before lifting the ban may be a good thing for the airlines.

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What…? A New MAX Issue?

Courtesy Getty Images

Just as it all seems to be good news for Boeing with IAG placing a tentative order for the B737 MAX jet, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has uncovered a new potential risk during simulator tests.

Some carriers such as American Airlines have been optimistic that the grounding would be lifted soon, but the new discovery can only mean pushing the date further down the road.

The FAA has clarified that’s not the priority for now. This was made clear in a statement that it issued: “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline, for returning the Boeing 737 Max to passenger service. The FAA will lift the aircraft’s prohibition order when we deem it is safe to do so.”

The FAA seems determined to reassert itself after being criticized for lacking in oversight following the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines disasters. It sees an important role now in discovering and highlighting potential risks, and has engaged the service of a Technical Advisory Board, which is an independent panel.

On the latest finding, FAA said it is “a potential risk that Boeing must mitigate.”

IAG probably did not see this coming, but it is to be assumed that the order is only as good as when the MAX is fully certified to be airworthy.

However, each time a new issue surfaces, public confidence sinks to a new low.

No new spin: Boeing sings the same apologetic tune

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The Paris Air Show (June 17 to 23) should provide an opportunity for aircraft manufacturer Boeing to clear the air of any misgiving and doubt that industry players may have of the company’s commitment to production priorities following the B737-800 MAX 8 disasters and the unsavoury stories that have unfolded since the two incidents involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines.

It will be a mammoth effort trying to regain customer trust particularly in light of how many travellers surveyed have indicated they would not ever fly the MAX jet even after the authorities have cleared it for service resumption. So far it is anybody’s guess as to when the grounding will be lifted. The date keeps pushing into the future.

Airlines which own a sizeable fleet of the MAX, having reported the cancellation of thousands of flights since the grounding, may be keen to see it back up in the air sooner. American Airlines which owns a fleet of 24 jets is pre-empting an October date.

But the authorities want to be more conservative this time as they grapple with issues of training and procedures with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) thinking it may be longer than that. Canadian transportation authorities for one are insisting on simulator training which Boeing, the FAA and American carriers think would not be necessary.

Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg all but knows too well the score. Quite wisely he had said of the Paris Air Show: “This is a different show for us, it is not about orders. It is really focused on safety and the safe return of the Max flight.”

Boeing had reported no new commercial aircraft orders in May, although according to Mr Mullenberg, the company had more than 4,000 orders of the MAX jet in backlog. He is expecting to see the aircraft back in the air by the end of the year, but the timeline is still not specific if not uncertain. Reports seem to be ambivalent as to whether the software glitch of the computer system known as MCAS has been definitively fixed or that Boeing is still working on the update.

The hardware may not be as difficult an issue to handle as that which concerns public opinion, perception and reservations. So in doses Boeing is dishing out apologetic messages but falling short of admitting sole responsibility for the tragic MAX incidents.

Mr Mullenberg expressed disappointment that Boeing had not been more transparent with regulators and the public when it discovered a safety light was not operating as designed. He echoed Boeing vice-president Gordon Johndroe who said ahead of the Paris Air Show: “We clearly fell short in the implementation of the AOA disagree alert and we clearly should have communicated better with our regulators and the airlines.”

And, one wonders, what would have had happened then?

Clearly the road ahead for Boeing is marked with PR pointers to appeal to the heart for understanding and perhaps implicitly forgiveness without admitting liability. It knows that the airlines who were operating the MAX before its grounding have much to lose if they do not work together to get the aircraft safely back in the air.

New MAX issues will keep jet on the ground

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Just as you think all that’s left remaining to be said of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 saga is waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration Authority of the United States (FAA) to announce the lifting of its grounding, new developments – whether directly or indirectly related – continue to stand in its way, making the delicate job of regaining customer’s confidence even more challenging.

Even as one is willing to put past issues aside – issues such as poor oversight and shoddy work at the Boeing plant, FAA’s laxity at certification, tardy reaction to warnings by pilots of potential issues with the MAX – adding new ones can only shake that confidence. What other beasts are out there to be discovered?

Latest, Boeing is warning airlines about potential flaws on the wings of some 737 jets including the MAX. More than 300 aircraft across the world may be affected, said to be the result of “improper manufacturing process” leading potentially to premature failure or cracks of the faulty parts. The aircraft manufacturer’s transparency is to be appreciated, but coming after two fatal crashes of the Max jet with a definitive conclusion still pending is unfortunately ill-timed. Of course, it is good to know that Boeing is committed to giving attention to the potential problem top priority.

Going forward, Boeing may have fixed the software glitch of the MAX, but airlines and regulators are still grappling with the issue of pilot training. Boeing, FAA and US carriers such as American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines all of which are big Max customers do not think simulator training is necessary, believing training on computers or tablets is sufficient for seasoned pilots.

It recalls how Boeing had said pilots familiar with the B737 aircraft would know what to do and that there were procedures in place to handle the kind of malfunction that some pilots had reported to have encountered. Ethiopian authorities had insisted that the pilots of the ill-fated Ethiopian Airlines flight had followed the procedures but were unable to control the aircraft.

Boeing too had said it would make an already safe aircraft “safer”, so to the lay traveller, why not be “doubly” sure?

Canada is one country that had said the US proposal of computer-based training which some pilots had received in the transition from the older B737 jet to the Max was not good enough. According to a Reuters report, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said: “It’s not going to be a question of pulling out an iPad and spending an hour on it. Simulators are the very best way, from a training point of view, to go over exactly what could happen in a real way and to react properly to it.”

Airlines favouring simulator training include Ryanair and Ethiopian Airlines.

According to some industry sources, part of the MAX’s appeal was that it did not require costly simulator training. Again, the old question surfaces, if at all it is pertinent, what price safety?

It looks like the MAX will have to stay on the ground longer than expected.

Some more Boeing woes: Shoddy work at manufacturing plant

As Boeing works at regaining the trust of travellers in the B737 Max 8 jet (following the crashes of an Ethiopian Airlines jet and a Lion Air jet in similar circumstances), assuring them that the software fix to the anti-stall system will make it the safest aircraft to fly the skies, new issues that have surfaced aren’t helping.

A New Times report (April 23, 2019) stated that the Boeing factory in North Charleston (South Carolina) that makes the 787 Dreamliner “has been plagued by shoddy production and weak oversight that have threatened to compromise safety.”

Whistle-blowers have pointed out defective manufacturing resulting from faulty parts being installed, debris left on planes dangerously close to wiring beneath the cockpits, and pressure to not report violations. The debris includes tools, metal shavings, Bubble Wrap and chewing gum, and it is alleged that customers had found random objects in new planes.

One airline – Qatar Airways – it seems, was so upset that it has since 2014 bought only planes built in Boeing’s main plant in Everett. It may sound ridiculous, but will travellers now go checking where the Dreamliners operated by other airlines were built, as a supermarket shopper would ordinarily do?

While the public may understand the risk of a mechanical failure of any machine, it is quite a different thing when the problem lies in a culture of not caring enough to ensure that the safety of the traveller comes before all else, that kind of trust that travellers must have in the product such as a plane.

Pushing production to meet deadlines at all cost and compromising safety standards can only rattle the traveller’s confidence. Already more than 50 per cent of Americans have said they will not fly the Max jet, even if the problem has been fixed.

And now the concern is extended to the Dreamliner. What next?

The New York Times report raises many concerns, top of which is how the management had turned a blind eye to complaints by the staff. Some of them alleged they had been punished or fired when they voiced concerns.

Two former managers said they were pushed to cover up production delays and employees were told to install equipment out of order to make it appear production was on schedule. In fact, Qatar’s beef was that Boeing was not being “transparent” about the cause of production delay.

What about the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s role in all this, particularly when in the Max investigations the agency the agency had been censured for allowing Boeing to self-certify?

According to the New York Times report, an FAA spokesman, Lynn Lunsford, said the agency found metal silvers in several planes certified by Boeing as free of debris.

The FAA issued a directive in 2017 requiring that Dreamliners be cleared of shavings before they are delivered. However, it was determined that the issue does not present a flight safety issue.

Boeing has all along insisted the Max is a safe aircraft and that there are procedures in place to correct errors presented by the anti-stall system. The software fix to be implemented is meant to make a safe aircraft “safer”.

Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg, courtesy CNBC

Today Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg echoed the same line, saying on Monday April 29 that the pilots of the fateful Ethiopian Airlines flight did not “completely” follow the although Ethiopian officials said earlier they did but could not control the plane.

Mr Mullenberg said: “When we design these systems, understand that these airplanes are flown in the hands of pilots.” Without saying as much, the competence of the pilots or their familiarity with the procedures has been called into question. “Going forward we have identified a way to improve,” he added, “I am confident that that again will make one of the safest airplanes in the air to fly”

Those words of assurance have since been uttered often and will continue to be repeated as Boeing faces the uphill task of regaining trust in the improved Max jet. More than their airline customers – some of whom have stood staunchly by Boeing – it is the majority of travelling end-users that they need to convince.

Will you take a Boeing 737 MAX flight again?

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/will-you-fly-b737-max-8-jet

B737-Max 8: Questions for FAA, Boeing and airlines

Courtesy Boeing

The cause of the two Max 8 aircraft crashes – first involving Lion Air and then Ethiopian Airlines – which led to the grounding of the world’s fleet of the jet has yet to be determined, although the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States (FAA) has said the findings are pointing to similarities in the two incidents. That apart, aircraft manufacturer Boeing is making changes to the control system and will as part of the upgrade install a warning system which was previously an optional feature.

Question: If this is a safety feature, why was it deemed not an essential standard?

Apparently, both the planes operated by Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines did not carry the alert systems. The fact that they are designed to warn pilots when sensors produce contradictory readings suggests a possibility however remote, and pilots would have been better positioned to handle the problem if adequately equipped. It is disconcerting to think that since this safety feature came at a cost, some airlines had chosen not to install it. The lesson has come expensively with Boeing now saying airlines would no longer be charged extra for the installation.

The upgrade by Boeing includes a redesigned software that will disable the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) if it receives conflicting data from its sensors. The MCAS is supposed to keep the plane from stalling when climbing at too steep an angle. Some pilots have reported incidents of how they managed to save the plane from nose-diving by deactivating the MCAS in quick time.

Question: Why is this knowledge not shared with other pilots, and the incidents given urgent attention?

Question: Are all pilots adequately trained to handle such situations? There was suggestion that pilots familiar with the previous generations of the B737 jet would know what to do, nevertheless Boeing is now committed to updating the training in preparation for the Max returning into service.

The FAA as the regulator has come under fire for its practice that involves employees of a plane manufacturer in the process of inspecting, testing and certifying the aircraft. Senator Richard Blumenthal described the procedure as having “the fox guarding the henhouse”. In defence, FAA’s acting head Daniel Elwell said it is a global practice and that FAA “retains strict oversight authoriity”.

Question: Clearly “self-certification:” by the plane maker is not a wise decision. Never mind past practice, will this be tightened moving forward?

What Mr Elwell also said at the Senate hearing is disturbing when he added that it would cost the FAA an additional US$1.8 billion to recruit 10,000 more employees if it could not delegate the tasks to the plane maker. It always comes down to the dollars and cents and one wonders where the priorities lie.

And yes, Mr Elwell’s response to the criticism about FAA not responding quick enough to ground the Max jet can only bring amusement. He said: “We may have been the last country to ground the aircraft, but the United States and Canada were the first countries to ground the aircraft with data for cause and purpose.”

No matter, the world breathed a sigh of relief that FAA finally followed the lead of China and other countries much as it was reluctant admitting it.