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Why Boeing 737 MAX’s return to Indian skies is some time away

Despite DGCA lifting the ban on Boeing 737-8 and Boeing 737-9 planes, which SpiceJet operated, there are a raft of procedures that have to be followed before these aircraft can fly again in India.

August 28, 2021 / 02:04 PM IST
A Boeing 737 MAX  aircraft | Representative Image

A Boeing 737 MAX aircraft | Representative Image

After being grounded on April 20, 2019 in India there is a glimmer of hope that the Boeing 737-8 and Boeing 737-9, more popularly called the MAX, will start operations in the country soon. Worldwide grounding of the MAX started much before India banned its operations.

On August 26, regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) rescinded its order grounding the Boeing 737-8 and 9 models.

“The new order permits Indian operators to fly these models subject to compliance with the Mandatory Modification to DGCA/B737-8&9/01R1 and EASA Airworthiness Directive of Feb17, 2021,” the DGCA order said.

The ban and after

Since December 9, 2020, when MAX was allowed to restart flying worldwide, 34 airlines have been operating 345 such planes. They have attained over 1.22 lakh departures with over 2.88 cumulative hours of flying since the aircraft was allowed to start flying again with no untoward reporting. American Airlines, Ryanair, flydubai, Air Canada and United Airlines are among the global airlines which have restarted operations with the MAX aircraft.

Close

In India, SpiceJet was the only Indian operator flying the MAX before the aircraft was grounded in India after the series of crashes internationally. The now defunct airline, Jet Airways, too had ordered and had taken delivery of the first of the 150 initial order of the MAX in June 2018. Jet Airways had five MAX planes in its fleet, but they were already grounded as on March 13, 2019, due to non-payment of dues to the lessors.

There have been media reports that Akasa, the Ultra Low Cost airline being started by billionaire Rakesh Jhunjhunwala along with Aditya Ghosh, former President, IndiGo and Vinay Dube, formerly Chief Executive Officer, Jet Airways is also eyeing the MAX for starting operations.

Not so fast

However, the MAX actually taking to the skies is still some time away as there are many procedures that will have to be followed before this variety of aircraft can fly again in India.

Captain PP Singh, formerly Senior Vice President, JetLite, a unit of Jet Airways, said following the DGCA order, “a successful return to service for these aircraft will need certain actions to be completed in terms of aircraft modifications and pilot training”. Since the affected aircraft have been in storage, two sets of maintenance activities need to be carried out, he said.

“Firstly, all activation tasks required for return to service will be completed. These actions reverse the steps taken earlier to preserve the aircraft while not in use,” said Captain Singh, who is now an examiner of A-330 planes for Nepal Airlines. Preserving the aircraft involved mothballing it and protecting it from environmental damage using physical and chemical barriers.

Secondly, the mandatory modifications in hardware and software, as stipulated by the manufacturer and the regulator, need to be installed by the operators. These include redesigned flight control computers to take inputs from two angles of attack sensors instead of one and software updates to reduce Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, to ensure that it cannot activate more than one time in a flight.

MCAS is a flight stabilising program developed by Boeing. MCAS was primarily blamed for the crashes of the Lion Air and Ethiopian MAX aircraft in quick succession killing over 340 people leading to the aircraft’s global grounding in 2019.

In addition, some changes will also have to be made to the wiring because of the issues flagged by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

DGCA’s airworthiness directorate will monitor and finally approve the completion of maintenance actions when it is satisfied that the compliance standards have been met.

The other requirement for a successful return to service is pilot training. Operators will need to obtain prior approval for training programs for the pilots from DGCA. The training programs will typically include several computer-based-training modules to provide an enhanced understanding of the flight control systems, and a certain number of hours in a full-flight simulator practicing failure scenarios of the flight control systems on the aircraft.

Let’s talk about training

All pilots will need to complete the approved training programs before they can fly the plane again. Sources maintain that it is not clear how long this will take as one can comment on the duration of training only after the approved program is available.

When all maintenance and pilot training activities are completed to the satisfaction of the regulator, the airplane can be deployed again for commercial service.

“The plane will only fly after the DGCA gives a green signal after inspecting the modifications,” says Captain Singh.

A former official of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation added that SpiceJet will also have to do a prescribed number of test flights which will be decided by DGCA in consultation with the airline. “Further, it will depend on what the FAA has recommended,” he said, asking not to be named.

Others are of the view that SpiceJet’s first flight with the MAX could be “late September at the earliest.” SpiceJet has already said that it expects to start operations of the MAX aircraft towards the end of September subject to regulatory approvals.
Ashwini Phadnis Senior journalist based in New Delhi
first published: Aug 28, 2021 02:04 pm
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