Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Max Family: Under Scrutiny Again

By Bikram Vohra

Bikram Vohra, Consulting Editor

India’s fleet of 40 Boeing 737 operated by Akasa (22), SpiceJet (9) and Air India Express (9) have been cleared of any flaws.

In one there was a missing washer but that may not point to a design flaw. By that very measure, even NTSB investigators are chary about going on record and condemning the MAX 9 after a plugged door burst in-flight on an Alaska Air soon after take-off. The plane had just crossed 16,000 feet and so the decompression was not catastrophic. That it might have been quite another story had the aircraft gained altitude is a moot point.

Again, it was a door from the original design that was blocked and plugged to suit the carrier’s seat configuration. More seats and the door would have been in use. Again, to the best of one’s knowledge, the plugging was not done by Boeing but by an outside source. That is cold comfort because the buck stops at the manufacturer as far as the public perception is concerned.

It was five years ago that saw the twin crashes of Max 8s of Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines killing 346 people.

The ‘what if’ factor cannot be ignored. Boeing did not ever think that Lion Air and Ethiopian 737 max aircraft would suffer crashes because of the difference in the angle of attack sensors. The MCAS system took that erroneous information and activated – repeatedly pushing the plane’s nose down during the time it was in the air after take-off. It left the pilots helpless.

Despite the very real flaw and a two-year hiatus, the demand for the 737Max came back strong and it survived the fear and freeze post the Ethiopian and Lion Air tragedies.

The irony is that until these new glitches manifested themselves in January keeping up with the delivery orders was the burr under the saddle. To put it in perspective if this is the speed currently about 157 odd 737s a month after opening a new assembly line then the undelivered 4000plus Max aircraft will take 13 years.

There is no doubt kismet kicks in. What is a normal alert by Boeing in December calling for a safety check on the bolts in the rudder system to see if any such item is loose now turns ominous. That United found such conditions adds to the concern. Alaska also stated it had found some ‘loose hardware.’

If all the aircraft so found had plugged doors is there any connection or are these two separate flaws that need to be addressed separately.

Aircraft aficionados were relieved when the 737 family grew exponentially with the Max 8 and 9 and the advent of the Max7 and 10.

It is a beautiful plane and is highly responsive. Ask any pilot. Now in the case of the blowout of the door on Alaska there had been concerns over its pressurisation capability on three occasions despite it being a brand-new plane. In fact, it had been taken off the Hawaii route because of the long-haul factor.

If it had been grounded the poorly fitted plugged door would have been fixed and the blowout avoided.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has his work cut out for him. This new year was supposed to be the turning point for Boeing and the order book was looking up. In service there are 1160 Max variants with the Max 8 accounting for the major number.

For Calhoun and his frontline, a very heartbreaking start to the year and placing Boeing on the backfoot with a resultant 8 percent drop in stock price.

To be very fair the loose bolts and what could be a poor plugging of a door may not indict Boeing for design error or incompetence.

Although there may be several aircraft found with the need for tightening bolts would this inspection not be a normal part of the regular check?

The loose bolt notification was sent out as are several such alerts and have assumed greater importance only considering the Alaska blowout. And that rectification was not done by Boeing.

If you mess with the basic design, is there a price to pay? The plug seals a hole in the plane’s fuselage where an extra emergency exit would usually be positioned. Planes that carry more than about 200 passengers require more emergency exits to comply with safety rules. If you configure a lesser uplift, you can block the door.

For now, one would not block the door on the Max fleet. With each inspection taking 4 to 8 hours there will be several schedule changes and cancellations. But that inconvenience is a small price to pay for a failsafe.

It is up to Calhoun and his frontline to allay fears and restore confidence in the Max fleet.

Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor of Indian Aerospace & Defence

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