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CAAS' quick suspension of Boeing 737 MAX 8 a right call, but could SilkAir have done better?

The crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet on March 10, five months after a Lion Air tragedy in October last year, drew the world's attention to aircraft manufacturer Boeing. There were no survivors in both incidents which involved the B737 MAX 8 aircraft, a new version of the popular B737 workhorse introduced into service only in 2017.

Singapore Airlines' subsidiary SilkAir has a fleet of six Max jets which operate to destinations as near as Kuala Lumpur to as far as Kathmandu, Hiroshima and Darwin.

Singapore Airlines' subsidiary SilkAir has a fleet of six Max jets which operate to destinations as near as Kuala Lumpur to as far as Kathmandu, Hiroshima and Darwin.

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The crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet on March 10, five months after a Lion Air tragedy in October last year, drew the world's attention to aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

There were no survivors in both incidents which involved the B737 MAX 8 aircraft, a new version of the popular B737 workhorse introduced into service only in 2017.

It raises inevitably the question of whether the MAX jet is safe to fly. Initial reactions were mixed across the aviation industry. A day after the Ethiopian crash, China took the lead to ground the aircraft owned by Chinese carriers.

Among them, China Southern has the largest fleet of 24 jets. The decision met with criticism in the west, which said it was premature since the cause of the crash was still unknown pending investigations.

Closer home, Singapore Airlines' subsidiary SilkAir has a fleet of six MAX jets which operate to destinations as near as Kuala Lumpur to as far as Kathmandu, Hiroshima and Darwin.

The regional carrier initially announced it would continue to operate as scheduled but would closely monitor developments, assuring the public that “the safety of our passengers and crew is of utmost importance to SilkAir.”

SilkAir was not alone in making that decision. The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was quick to assert its confidence in the MAX aircraft, having found “no systemic performance issues” that warrant grounding.

North American carriers such as Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada — all three of them are among the biggest operators of the MAX jet — supported that view, so did a number of other airlines such as Norwegian Air Shuttle, Fiji Airways and Icelandair.

If silence means support, there were also a number of airlines who chose to wait and see, among them the Indian carriers.

But things changed quickly. It did not take long for other countries and airlines to follow China's example.

Ethiopia and Indonesia — home to the unfortunate carriers — and airlines such as Cayman Airways, Brazilian airline GOL, Aerolinas Argentinas and Aeromexico came on board.

Soon after, Singapore's Civil Aviation Authority (CAAS) announced it was suspending all MAX jet operations at Changi Airport, and Singapore became the first country to ban all variants of the model.

The umbrella ruling — involving not just domestic planes but also international ones — thus reverses SilkAir's earlier decision. It is difficult to say if SilkAir should have reacted differently in its first response.

It could adopt a wait-and-see attitude and not say anything like many other carriers, but that's not necessarily the better option. It needed then to reassure its customers of the integrity of its fleet.

It is also not known if at that time SilkAir was already preparing for the possibility of grounding the Max jet. Its failing was not reading how quickly the tide would change.

Understandably, grounding the aircraft would mean flight disruptions, and carriers that rely primarily on the MAX fleet may be persuaded by the economics. But the impact of public anxiety which needs to be addressed quickly cannot be underestimated.

Many travellers quickly switched flights or cancelled their bookings to avoid flying the MAX aircraft. Unions representing air crew were saying that members who had safety concerns should not be forced to fly.

SilkAir therefore made the first right move to allay the fear of its customers, but it missed the opportunity to make a second move as things changed, so it looked like CAAS has overruled its decision although SilkAir clarified it was in “close communication” with the authorities.

The move by CAAS as the authority responsible for aviation in Singapore is to be expected. It would have been delinquent of CAAS for not getting involved as the matter became a national issue.

Notably, many nations have since announced they too are grounding the MAX jet — the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, Malaysia and lately India and Canada among them.

CAAS has stood out as a leader in the field in making that call soon enough — two days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash — despite criticism from some members of the public that it came too slowly. 

Singapore was way ahead of many others, choosing to err on the side of caution, even though at that stage, there was probably not much to support the call beyond the discernible similarities between the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air incidents.

Both airlines flew the MAX aircraft and nosedived soon after take-off — six minutes in the case of Ethiopia Airlines and 13 minutes that of Lion Air. 

Visibility was good and the pilots were well experienced. Such similarities cannot escape attention and should not be ignored. But they were also unprecedented, which made any judgement call on whether to ground MAX aircraft more tricky.

New developments would attest to CAAS’ call being a right call even if it was in part guided by gut feeling.

After holding out so strongly despite calls by politicians and experts not to wait until another accident happens, the FAA has also conceded, apparently having uncovered fresh evidence at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

Its acting administrator Dan Elwell said: “It became clear to all parties that the track of the Ethiopian Airlines (flight) was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight.”

This then led to the grounding of the  entire fleet of MAX aircraft, making the US along with Brazil to be the latest countries to suspend operations by the jet on Thursday.

It is interesting that this significant finding by FAA is revealed within the week following the Ethiopian Airlines crash, considering how investigations into the Lion Air crash have yet to be concluded, the full report not expected until next year.

It shows how mounting pressure around the world to suspend MAX operations has resulted in speedy investigations and faster implementation of remedial action. If the investigations are meant to prevent accidents of a similar nature, isn't there an urgency to bring the matter to a close?

It would be tragic to know that the findings of the Lion Air incident could have prevented the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

That is the kind of irreversible situation that CAAS, in making the call to suspend MAX and taking SilkAir on board, can hope to avoid by heeding early warning signs, however imprecise.

The cost of prolonging such a decision may not be worth the risk.

 

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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