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With grounding of Boeing MAX and Dreamliner planes, how can Singapore’s airlines reassure customers?

As Boeing works at regaining the trust of travellers in the B737 MAX 8 jet (following two fatal crashes involving Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air), new issues concerning not only the MAX but also the B787 Dreamliner that have surfaced aren't helping its efforts. What does this mean for Singapore Airlines and its subsidiaries which own these planes?

Since Singapore Airlines (SIA) and its subsidiaries – Scoot and SilkAir – own a fleet of these jets, they will need to manage the perception of customers who have become disillusioned with Boeing's apparent lack of transparency, said the author.

Since Singapore Airlines (SIA) and its subsidiaries – Scoot and SilkAir – own a fleet of these jets, they will need to manage the perception of customers who have become disillusioned with Boeing's apparent lack of transparency, said the author.

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Boeing is working to regain the trust of travellers in the B737 MAX 8 jet, following two fatal crashes involving Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air, assuring them that the software fix to the anti-stall system will make it the safest aircraft to fly the skies.

But new issues concerning not only the MAX but also the B787 Dreamliner have surfaced, and this is not helping Boeing's efforts.

Since Singapore Airlines (SIA) and its subsidiaries — Scoot and SilkAir — own a fleet of these jets, they will need to manage the perception of customers who have become disillusioned with Boeing's apparent lack of transparency.

There will be questions asked that need to be answered to reassure travellers of the airlines' commitment to aircraft safety as their topmost priority.

Southwest Airlines, which is Boeing's largest MAX customer with a fleet of 34 aircraft, said it was not informed that a safety feature designed to warn pilots about malfunctioning sensors was inoperable until after the Lion Air crash. Neither was the United States' Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aware of this.

Boeing had actually indicated through its manual that it was functional, even though the alarm feature was optional rather than a standard feature. 

One is apt to ask if SilkAir's fleet of six MAX jets had originally been fitted with the safety feature. If not, was SilkAir aware of this? Or did SilkAir decide not to take up the option?

Boeing insisted that the absence of the optional feature did not jeopardise flight safety. The question remains: Would it have helped?

Boeing chief executive officer Dennis Mullenberg has said that the pilots of the fateful Ethiopian Airlines flight did not “completely” follow the procedures set by Boeing although Ethiopian officials had said earlier the crew did but could not control the plane.

Mr Mullenberg's remark calls into question the competence of the pilots and their familiarity with the procedures.

So, are SilkAir pilots adequately trained to handle the procedures, assuming that these are in place? Or do the pilots need retraining?

Boeing’s actions have led some critics to suggest that in chasing orders, pushing production — in competition with Airbus — and cutting costs, the company might have compromised aircraft safety.

Participation by its own pilots developing the MAX flight control system had also been scaled back. Whether this would have resulted in altering the final design or not is not the issue, but it reflects rather poorly on Boeing's level of thoroughness.

A New York Times report revealed shoddy production and weak oversight at the Boeing factory in North Charleston that makes the 787 Dreamliner.

Whistle-blowers pointed out defective manufacturing resulting from faulty parts, and tools and debris such as metal shavings that had been left on planes dangerously close to wiring beneath the cockpits. The work environment was so intimidating that employees became afraid of reporting violations.

In its own defence, a Boeing spokesman said: “We prioritise safety and quality over speed, but all three can be accomplished while still producing one of the safest planes flying today.” He added that safety issues were immediately investigated and changes made wherever necessary.

Yet it is said Qatar Airways, a major Boeing customer, has since 2014 bought only planes built in Boeing's main plant in Everett.

Interestingly, SIA's launch Dreamliner was made at the North Charleston plant. One can trust that SIA made the necessary inspection of the aircraft before delivery. It has since added another seven jets to its fleet while subsidiary Scoot has 18 of the smaller variants.

Of greater concern is the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine fitted on the Dreamliner. Last month SIA grounded two of the jets due to premature blade deterioration. Last year a Scoot flight to Perth encountered a “technical issue” relating to the engine but it is not clear if it was the same problem.

In fact, the Trent engine problem is not new. Other airlines such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Norwegian Air Shuttle have also grounded their affected aircraft. As of late February, Rolls-Royce said 35 jets globally were grounded and it aimed to reduce it to 10 by the end of the year.

SIA did the right thing in being open in its communication when it announced the grounding of its two Dreamliner jets. Customers will feel reassured by its stringent maintenance regime that detected the defect before it could become a problem.

An update of checks made on the rest of the Dreamliner fleet may be of interest to its customers.

Right now, it is the MAX jet that presents a bigger challenge. It is still not certain when its grounding will be lifted as the target date keeps changing.

Some airlines planning forward assume it may be July or August, but scheduling flights using the MAX jet under the circumstances may turn loyal customers to book with other airlines.

Many travellers are likely to wait and see to be again convinced of its safety, and this cannot be rushed.

Already many travellers have said they will never fly the MAX jet even after the improved software has been installed. It is not surprising.

The findings have pointed to a software glitch sending conflicting signals but are not definitive about the actual cause of the two crashes. It leaves the public still wondering what actually happened. Not knowing is scary.

Boeing's boast that the improved software will make an already safe aircraft “safer” and the suggestion that human error could not be ruled out are far from reassuring.

It shifts the onus instead to airlines such as SilkAir to reassure its customers that it is completely satisfied with all that has been done to put the jet back in the air, and that SilkAir itself too has done all that is necessary such as procedure updates and crew retraining. More discerning travellers may want to know what exactly has been changed.

When the Scoot flight to Perth encountered an engine issue last year, the airline issued a statement that said: “Safety is of utmost importance to Scoot and we will spare no effort to ensure the safety and well-being of our customers.”

It is the kind of message that customers want to hear, and the trust can only be delivered through open, transparent and honest communication.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Leo is a published author and an aviation veteran, having worked in airline and airport operations for 30 years.

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