Airplanes are considered to be the safest mode of transportation yet they cause more casualties than all other conveying means. Recently, Ethiopian Airlines met a fatal crash on 10th March 2019, minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. About 5 months back, a similar incident happened with Lion Air which crashed near Jakarta, Indonesia claiming 189 lives. Strangely, or perhaps rather interestingly, both the aircrafts happened to be Boeing 737 Max 8 jet. Boeing made its name by manufacturing twin engine 737 nicknamed Baby Boeing having the capacity to accommodate 190 people. It is considered to be the backbone of short haul fleets worldwide. It is being continuously updated since and the latest is 737 Max, with new engines and aerodynamic changes, better fuel efficiency and lower operating costs. Yet it ended up crashing and taking lives of all the passengers. Boeing is one of the largest global manufacturers of aircraft and has a huge market all over the world.
The recent crash caused the aircraft to lose more than 10 per cent within a week, shaving $24.6 billion off its market capitalization. Moreover as soon as the news of the crash broke, countries from all over the world grounded the plane and refused to fly aircraft 737 Max until details behind the Ethiopian airlines tragedy revealed. China and Europe were the first to pull the jets from the skies followed by many others. However, United States resisted. Investigations are under process but what is known so far is that both the crashes shared stark similarities which cannot be disregarded. For instance both were Boeing 737 Max 8; both planes used the same software called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) which automatically lowers down the nose if the aircraft is flying too slowly or steeply and at risk of stalling. Both planes went down shortly after takeoff. Both planes had well experienced crews.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations recommends a minimum of 150 hours flying time to commercial pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires 1500 hours for commercial pilots. US commercial aviation accident rate is the lowest there has ever been. But the recent crashes raise questions about how far the outsourcing of safety has gone.
Lastly both the pilots reported difficulties with the automatic system of the plane minutes before the crash. It is hard to follow, why then the pilots were not trained thoroughly enough for this system and why Boeing acclaimed the fact that the plane was similar to the existing 737 and there is no need of extensive training.
Lack of responsibility and candor is the main problem in handling a crisis situation and Boeing followed exactly the same approach by implying that 737 Max was and is safe to fly. FAA’s reluctance in communicating and showing transparency about the crisis created vacuum and invited criticism which resulted in losing the airlines credibility and confidence of the people for a long time now and led to the belief that the company’s priority is the profit produced by the aircraft instead of the lives of the passengers. FAA succumbed to the global pressure and grounded the 737 Max on March 13 whereas Boeing promised software fix by April to address the potential problems with its planes.
Not surprisingly, Europe is benefitting the most out of the Boeing crisis. The grounding of 737 Max has effortlessly given edge to the Airbus A320 globally. Especially when China made a deal to buy A320 jets, with France recently. It is to be noted that most of the world’s airlines are fully or partially government owned or subsidized by their respective governments and the aircraft deals are often made according to the political criteria in addition to commercial ones. Boeing and Airbus try to manipulate this by subcontracting production of aircraft components in countries of strategic importance in order to gain competitive advantage. Since Airlines play a huge role in a country’s economy perhaps this is the reason why even allies like US and Europe are competing on the business front.
The author, Shafaq Khursheed, is a researcher at PIIA.
“Boeing 737 Max crashes show similarities, investigators find.” www.Cnet.com, 22 March, 2019.
“Airlines warn of cancellations as Boeing readies 737 MAX software fix.” www.cnbc.com, 25 March, 2019.
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“Boeing Can the company survive two fatal disasters?” The Guardian Weekly, 22 March, 2019.
“Second-Hand Safety” Time, 1 April, 2019.