Boeing's B737 Max: Tragic hero for some, untouchable for others

For all its controversies, the Boeing B737 Max delivers some distinct advantages that keep many airlines across the world hooked to it

Boeing's B737 Max: Tragic hero for some, untouchable for others
The Boeing B737 Max 8. Image courtesy: Boeing

Boeing controversial B737 Max has received a mixed response since it was cleared to fly again by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month. The Max, Boeing's best-selling aircraft, was grounded for a record 20 months after two deadly crashes in a matter of just over four months resulted in the death of 346 people. 

The Max is a re-engined and fuel-efficient version of an aircraft that was first flown in the 1960s and rivals Airbus's A320 Neo as a workhorse for airlines around the world. Nearly 400 B737 Max planes were in operation worldwide when they were grounded.

The Max is based on earlier 737 designs and boasts of more efficient CFM International LEAP-1B engines, aerodynamic changes, including its distinctive split-tip winglets and airframe modifications.

A Boeing 737 Max operated by Indian low-cost carrier SpiceJet. Image courtesy: Youtube

Brazil's Goi Airlines brought the B737 Max back into service, using the aircraft for a flight from Sao Paolo to Porto Alegre, according to flightradar24.com data. The airline is planning to start regular service of the Max soon, with the Brazilian aviation regulator clearing the Max for flight last month. Passengers, however, would be given the option to exchange their tickets if they are too scared to fly on a B737 Max. 

American Airlines plans to fly the Max first without passengers before restarting commercial service by the year-end, according to a report in the Verge. Another US airline, Southwest Airlines would be restarting commercial flights by the second quarter of 2021. On December 10, American Airlines took delivery of its first B737 Max 8 after its re-certification.

Also read: Boeing's killer B737 Max ungrounded, but Spicejet need not celebrate yet

This came a week after the airline had started to ferry its employees and select members of the public on the Max on "confidence flights" for free to demonstrate that the aircraft is safe to restart passenger operations, according to Fox23. United Airlines also plans to use the Max to carry passengers from early next year, AP reported. The US pilot unions have said that they were happy with the improvements made to the Max, according to Flightglobal. 

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) may soon grant approval to the Max soon. The regulator published a Proposed Airworthiness Directive (PAD) with regard to the Max for public consultation. 

The grounded Jet Airways was the first to start B737 Max service in India. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BoeingAirplanes

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), however, maintains the ban on the plane, according to agency reports. The Chinese regulator has said that results of the probes into the B737 Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia "must be made clear" and the aircraft design rectifications must be "effective" and "receive approval".

China is the biggest market for the Max. The country was the first to ban the plane after the two crashes, one in October 2018 and the other in March 2019. 

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) of India has also been wary about immediately granting the green signal to the Max. "We will study and react. It will take some time,” DGCA chief Arun Kumar was quoted as saying by the Indian Express. India has made it clear that regulators here would be doing their own studies to ascertain if the Max is fit enough to fly over the Indian skies.

Budget carrier SpiceJet currently is the only operator of the Max in India, with 12 such planes in its fleet. The grounded Jet Airways used to fly some Max planes, but it is not clear if the owners of the reborn Jet Airways would be keen to use these planes. According to a Times of India report, SpiceJet has 200 Max planes on order from Boeing.

Also read: Boeing 737 Max could have seen 15 more crashes, but why did DGCA ignore threat?

The Max ungrounding, however, would make no difference to SpiceJet because unless the DGCA allows it, no Indian airline can fly the Max, the FAA clearance notwithstanding.    

The aircraft's stall-prevention system called Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was blamed by the investigators for both the crashes that led to the prolonged ban on the aircraft. 

Inside a Jet Airways Boeing 737 Max. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BoeingAirplanes

The MCAS is a safety system installed on the B737 Max to control the plane's tendency to tilt nose-up because of the size and placement of the engines, a Live Mint report had pointed out. It repeatedly shoves the nose of the plane down if the plane perceives it is in a stall.

In both the crashes, erroneous sensor data triggered the MCAS and strongly pushed the nose of the plane down so much so that it went out of the pilots' control, causing the nearly brand-new jets taking deadly plunges.

The MCAS has now been altered to prevent it from getting repeatedly activated and has been re-engineered to limit how sharply it can dive, Bloomberg reported. Redesigning of the plane’s flight-control computer has been done to improve redundancy as well.

Also read: 'For SpiceJet, Boeing B737 Max's ungrounding makes no difference yet'

According to an article in Plane Vanilla, the FAA had estimated that there could have been 15 more crashes during the lifetime of the B737 Max if the MCAS was not fixed. 

In early December, Boeing registered its first Max order since the grounding, with Irish no-frills carrier Ryanair signing a deal to purchase 75 such planes, according to AFP. This brought the airline's total Max orders to 210.

A Boeing 737 Max 7. Image courtesy: Boeing

However, airlines continued to cancel Max orders. Boeing revealed that there were 88 such cancellations in November, taking the total for the year to 536. There were 27 orders, but 25 of those were a new order by Virgin Australia that replaced a larger earlier order for 48 Max aircraft.  

The Max was a cash cow for Boeing before the Lion Air crash in October 2018, and the grounding was a body blow for the planemaking giant. It is important not only for Boeing to earn back its lost repute, but help it rebound after a crippling coronavirus crisis. 

Boeing would be hard-pressed to mend ties with customer airlines, flight crews and passengers alike. It has drawn a lot of flak over its handling of the Max crisis and continues to face lawsuits from the family members of the two crash victims, who have bashed the FAA for allowing the Max back in the sky.  

According to a report in CNBC, airlines have been put off by the fuel-efficient Max not being available during the peak summer travelling season as a result of the grounding. According to a Flightglobal report in July, Spicejet has incurred a cost over Rs 6.7 billion due to the grounding of the Max. The Indian airline has sought a huge compensation of about Rs 950 crore from Boeing.

Flight crews have been complaining that Boeing sprang an unpleasant surprise on them with changes to the new planes before they were delivered. Pilots have said that they did not have any idea about the MCAS until the Lion Air crash.

The B737 Max was involved in two fatal crashes within a span of just over four months. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

Moreover, passengers are expected to hesitate to fly again on an aircraft with a dark history. According to a UBS survey mentioned by CNBC, 70% of the respondents said they were undecided about booking a Max flight. One-fifth of the people polled wanted to see the Max fly with any incident for six months before travelling on it.

In fact, a study by travel consulting firm Atmosphere Research Group found that 40% of the respondents were willing to even book costlier and longer connecting flights than travel on the B737 Max. Major US airlines like Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have even given passengers the option to change their flights free of charge if they are scared about flying on the Max.

Boeing had hoped that it would gain back some its prestige with the Boeing 777X, the world largest twin-engine plane, following its test flight at the start of the year. However, the Covid-19 crisis put a spanner in the works and now the debut of the behemoth aircraft has been pushed back.  

According to an Indian Express report, the B737 Max makes up 80% of the planemaker's backlog of 5,121 orders. Apart from the B737 and B737 Next Generation (NG), it is Boeing's only offering in the important single-aisle market, with costlier twin-aisle aircraft like the 787 Dreamliner not being in demand in this time of gloom in the aviation industry that has been pummelled by the Covid-19 crisis, and when many airlines like SpiceJet are fighting to survive.

Boeing had become a so-called 'zombie' company during the Covid-19 pandemic, earning less than interest expense. Max sales would help it to clear more than $30 billion in debt that Boeing had taken earlier this year to cope with the pandemic.

The B737 Max has been Boeing's best-selling plane. Image courtesy: Boeing

The company could earn $12 billion by selling the 450 Max planes built during the pandemic-induced flight ban, said George Ferguson, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. Boeing has also burned through over $22 billion in cash since the Max planes were grounded. 

The Max returning to the skies is also important to fund a future narrow-body aircraft Boeing would need to counter arch-rival Airbus's A321 Neo, which is the largest single-aisle plane at present and which has already received rave reviews.

Airbus currently occupies 60% of the single-aisle market, the Express report pointed out. Again to see this in an Indian context, IndiGo, which controls about 60% of the Indian domestic market, flies mainly Airbus A320, A320 Neo and A321 Neo single-aisle planes.

For all its controversies, the Max delivers some distinct advantages that keep many airlines across the world hooked to it. According to Boeing, the Max delivers big savings in fuel consumption that airlines require for the future. The 737 Max 8 reduces fuel use and carbon-dioxide emissions by 14% over the newest B737 NG and 20% over the first B737 NGs. And the B737 Max 8 uses 8% less fuel per seat than rival Airbus's workhorse, the A320 Neo. 

At a relatively cheaper price, the single-aisle Max had a flying range that gave airlines the option of using it on long-haul flights, which are normally undertaken by wide-body planes, The Guardian reported. The B737 Max 7 has a range of 7,085 km.