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Will you take a Boeing 737 MAX flight again?

It remains unclear when the B737-MAX 8 jet will be re-introduced back into service after the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States (FAA) is satisfied with the fixes implemented by Boeing. The question is when that happens, will you be prepared to take the plane again?

A SilkAir Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft sits on the tarmac at Changi Airport in Singapore.

A SilkAir Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft sits on the tarmac at Changi Airport in Singapore.

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I recently asked a group of friends if they would fly the B737-MAX 8 jet when it is re-introduced back into service after the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States (FAA) is satisfied with the fixes implemented by Boeing. It remains uncertain as to when that is likely to happen.

The question is of interest to Singaporeans who travel widely, particularly since the MAX is generally used for the short haul or regional flights, and SilkAir has six planes operating to destinations in the region.

Before the grounding, such flights at Changi Airport were also operated by China Southern Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Shangdong Airlines and Thai Lion Air.

Many of my friends said they would not fly the MAX, some among them even vehemently said they will “never” take the plane again. The few who were less apprehensive were however cautious, saying they would consider after some time, or if they had no choice of flights.

Although the responses are hardly representative of the larger population, they are likely indicative of public sentiment at least for now. That is understandable in light of two fatal crashes involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines.

The FAA had drawn some similarities between the two incidents. Boeing is making changes to the control system and, as part of the upgrade, will install a warning system which was previously an optional feature. Pilot training will also be stepped up.

It has taken Boeing a while to now admit that a failure in the jet's anti-stall system was a factor in the crashes, but it also said there were procedures in place if that happened.

However, based on data from the black box of the ill-fated Ethiopian Airlines flight, it seemed the crew did initially follow the procedures but were unable to regain control of the aircraft.

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Stories by some pilots have also surfaced about how they too had experienced similar problems but were fortunately able to manually deactivate the MCAS (Manoeuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). This sounded like a disaster waiting to happen.

According to investigators of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, erroneous readings from the MCAS appeared to have forced the nose of the plane down several times in less than three minutes to prevent the plane from stalling. It seemed the same error occurred in the Lion Air crash.

Meanwhile other developments are raising more questions. The FAA is being investigated for not being diligent in the process of inspecting, testing and certifying the aircraft. As regulator, it has been criticised for allowing “self-certification”.

In response, FAA's acting head Daniel Elwell said it would cost the agency an additional US$1.8 billion to recruit 10,000 more employees if it could not delegate the tasks to the plane maker. What price safety then?

At the industry level, the reaction of airlines such as Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways and VietJet to consider cancelling their MAX orders only serves to further shake the confidence of air travellers.

A spokesperson for Garuda, which has already taken delivery of one of an order for 50 planes costing US$4.9 billion, said: “Our passengers have lost confidence to fly with the MAX 8.”

On the other hand, WestJet which has 13 such planes said it would stick with its outstanding orders. Other airlines with a sizeable fleet are expected to continue operating them.

Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg said Boeing has “the responsibility to eliminate (the) risk” posed by the “erroneous activation of the aircraft's MCAS function”. He assured its customers “we know how to do it”.

There is no reason to doubt Boeing's capability and that the MAX will be safe to fly again after the grounding is lifted. But the suspicion of a lack of transparency in the ongoing investigations has done much damage to the public trust, which will take a long time to repair.

Boeing will have its work cut out to deliver its promises. Immediately after the Ethiopian Airlines crash it insisted the MAX was a safe aircraft.

Then it said it would implement changes to the control system to make “an already safe aircraft safer”. And now, new software will make MAX “among the safest ever to fly”.  

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Many travellers do not know or are concerned about the plane they are flying. They trust completely that it is safe. They need time to be convinced again, and will be wary of any new incident of lapses even if they are unrelated to the crashes.

Back in January 2013, the new B787 Dreamliner was grounded after All Nippon Airways reported smoke from the battery compartment and Japan Airlines encountered fire in a stationary plane.

The problem of overheating battery was quickly identified and the fleet grounded. The ban was lifted three months later after changes were made to the battery system.

The public did not lose faith in the industry players. At that time, only 50 Dreamliner planes were operational. The global B787 fleet (all variants included) has since grown to some 800 aircraft whose operators include Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Scoot.

Of course, the MAX presented a much bigger issue. Unlike the Dreamliner, there were fatalities. It surfaces a moral concern, particularly when questions are now being asked if the second crash could have been prevented had the relevant parties paid due attention to the earlier incident.

This month, SIA grounded two of its eight Boeing 787-10 jets which average just over a year old due to problems with the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine. As of late February, Rolls-Royce said 35 planes across the industry were grounded.

Grounding an aircraft can be costly, but airlines should not be taking chances. In the present climate, the mood must be one of caution. Being as open as SIA helps to reassure customers of the diligence an airline gives to its maintenance programme.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore as regulator plays an equally important role in shoring up public confidence in its constant checks on safety issues.

It rightly chose to be cautious rather than sorry when it decided to ground the MAX aircraft despite FAA's insistence at that time that the plane was safe. The public needs to be assured that their safety comes first.

 

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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