Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

Boeing 737 Max update: confused or nervous about flying now? Here's what we know

Less than two weeks since the fatal Ethiopian Airlines crash, jets are grounded, flights continue to be cancelled and travellers are feeling a lack of confidence

Boeing could struggle to regain public confidence after two of its 737 Max 8 aircraft crashed less than six months apart. Courtesy Boeing
Boeing could struggle to regain public confidence after two of its 737 Max 8 aircraft crashed less than six months apart. Courtesy Boeing

It’s been 10 days since the fatal Ethiopian Airlines crash that claimed the lives of all 157 passengers and crew on flight ET302. Since the incident, all Boeing 737 Max aircraft — the jet involved in the crash — have been globally grounded.

Preliminary investigations into data downloaded from the plane’s black boxes have shown "clear similarities" between the Ethiopian crash and the Lion Air Boeing 737 Max that went down in Indonesia in October.

While families in 35 nations across the world battle to come to grips with the loss of loved ones involved in the crash, for everyone else — travel continues, but it’s not quite business as usual.

A confidence crisis for travellers

While the impact of the grounding has so far only inconvenienced those who were already booked to travel on Max jets, the travel industry as a whole is feeling the ripples of a drop in public confidence.

Until now, most passengers flew with little awareness of the aircraft they were travelling on. Passengers are now familiar with the loss that has occurred in connection with the Boeing 737 Max and, for the moment, are paying more attention to these details. In response, flight search engine Kayak last week added a new filter function that allows customers to exclude particular aircraft models from search queries.

On Tuesday, Boeing’s chief executive Dennis Muilenburg addressed the public in a statement that said: "We’ll keep working to earn and keep the trust people have placed in Boeing."

That is going to be an arduous struggle for Boeing as the Max is the first aircraft in aviation history to be grounded after two fatal crashes. According to the Aviation Safety Network, the only other aircraft to be grounded after a deadly crash was the Yakovlev Yak-42, which went down in 1982, killing 132 people. This lack of confidence will also compound the FAA for its role in certifying the Max and for being the last major watchdog to ground the jets after the Addis Ababa crash.

How have flights been affected?

Globally, there are less than 400 Boeing 737 Max-8 jets, which is not a huge number when, as of 2017, there were an estimated 23,000 planes in the world according to aviation analysts Ascend.

However, since the grounding of all Boeing 737 Max aircraft, hundreds of flights around the world have had to be cancelled or rescheduled.

Boeing’s biggest customer base for its best-selling jet is in North America, where multiple airlines fly the jet. American Airlines, the world’s biggest carrier, has 24 Boeing 737 Max 8 in its fleet, with 76 more on order.

In a statement, American Airlines confirmed that it was cancelling approximately 85 flights per day during the grounding of the Max 8 fleet. That’s equivalent to around one per cent of daily flights worldwide.

All US airlines affected by the grounding are offering full refunds for travellers on cancelled Max flights that have since decided not to travel. Other airlines, including Air Canada, Silk Air and Norwegian Air, have introduced similar cancellation policies and issued apologies for disruption.

Local airline Flydubai continues to reschedule and cancel flights that were to be serviced by the Boeing 737 Max 8. Courtesy Flydubai
Local airline Flydubai continues to reschedule and cancel flights that were to be serviced by the Boeing 737 Max 8. Courtesy Flydubai

In the UAE, Flydubai grounded all its Max fleet following the General Civil Aviation Authorities’ decision on March 12. With the Max making up around 12 per cent of the airline’s total capacity, it has cancelled up to 15 flights per day. Full refunds for passengers facing cancellations are being offered, however the process can take up to seven weeks.

While disruption to the travel industry has been kept to a minimum, if the ban rolls on for an extended period it could provide further disruption as demand begins to climb towards the Northern Hemisphere summer.

With less supply, passengers would have fewer flight options which could trigger higher airfares, especially in destinations such as Florida where Max aircraft serviced a high concentration of flights.

Cancellation and confusion

Customers in the UAE have been having their Flydubai cancelled flights rescheduled or refunded.

Dubai resident Karan Deep, whose family were set to travel from Helsinki to Dubai on March 14 on flight 1784, was booked on one of the first cancelled flights by the low-cost carrier. Deep told The National: “It took some time for Flydubai to provide accommodation and get my family booked on alternate flights, but kudos to them for providing accommodation, meal vouchers and putting them on the next available flight.”

He added: “While answering their customer support lines and providing an update would have helped passengers, I understand that it was an unforeseen event and out of Flydubai’s hands.”

For passenger Jodie Khawand, who is currently in Lebanon, the period has been confusing. Originally booked to travel from Beirut to Al Maktoum Airport on March 23, Khawand received a notification that her travel was cancelled on March 13. She was rebooked on a new flight for the same date, but at a later time and into DXB airport. This flight was subsequently cancelled and, at the time of writing, Khawand had no further update on when she would fly.

A Flydubai spokesperson told The National: “Flydubai continues to work through the cancellations in chronological order. We are prioritising responses to customers based on their date of travel. Passengers affected by cancellations are being given options to rebook on Flydubai, transfer to a partner airline or receive a refund to the original form or payment or a voucher.”

Safety first: what about the software?

Scrutiny on the Max software has increased in recent days as preliminary investigations suggested similarities in the way the pilots of both 737 Max crashes appeared to have battled with the jet’s computer in the moments before each crash.

Airbus' release of its A320neo put Boeing under pressure to quickly introduce a new jet - the now grounded Boeing 737 Max 8. Courtesy Don Vip / Wikimedia Commons
Airbus' release of its A320neo put Boeing under pressure to quickly introduce a new jet - the now grounded Boeing 737 Max 8. Courtesy Don Vip / Wikimedia Commons

Most pilots have never had training on the new 737 Max aircraft. When Boeing introduced the aircraft it invented a new software — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — which it said would render the jet almost identical with its predecessor, on which pilots were already trained.

This may have been a bid by Boeing to save money and avoid losing clients to Airbus who had just released its economical A320-neo. The logic was supported by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). With the MCAS now appearing to be one of the links between the two crashes, Boeing has promised updated software in a matter of weeks. Questions have now been raised about the relationship between the FAA and Boeing and their process of aircraft regulation.

When asked about the new safety concerns, local carrier Flydubai said that at this stage these issues should be referred to regulators and the investigators in charge of the crashes in question.

A spokesperson for the airline had previously said: "We recognise this is a unique and complex situation underpinned by safety and regulation. Flydubai continues to work closely with its regulator and Boeing and we value our long-standing relationship with these partners. Our MAX aircraft remain an integral part of our strategy for the future.”

How long will the planes be grounded?

The only other aircraft to be grounded after a fatal crash was the Yakovlev Yak-42. An Aeroflot crash in 1982 involving the plane saw the fleet grounded for two years while major design changes were made. Courtesy Pavel Adzhigildaev / Wikimedia Commmons
The only other aircraft to be grounded after a fatal crash was the Yakovlev Yak-42. An Aeroflot crash in 1982 involving the plane saw the fleet grounded for two years while major design changes were made. Courtesy Pavel Adzhigildaev / Wikimedia Commmons

At the moment, nobody knows how long the ban will stay in effect — in the case of the Yakovlev Yak-42 ban in 1982, the aircraft was grounded for two years. Movement will depend on how quickly investigations into the crash conclude.

In the Lion Air investigation, a preliminary report was released on November 28, one month after the incident. The Ethiopian Accident Investigation Bureau has stated that it intends to release a preliminary report within 30 days.

This week, US politicians stated that Max planes would be unable to fly at least until April, when new software is set to be installed. Boeing has promised this new software in a matter of weeks. While Boeing has the means and knowledge to fix the software on the 737 Max aircraft, what remains to be seen is whether the US aircraft manufacturer has the know-how to repair the growing confidence crisis.

Updated: March 20, 2019 03:45 PM

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