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Will the Boeing 737 Max episode bring a change in how aviation industry treats customer safety?

Boeing and other stakeholders had compromised customer safety on the altar of profitability and higher market share

November 19, 2020 / 11:46 AM IST
File image of the Boeing 737 MAX

File image of the Boeing 737 MAX

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Before the year ends, a Boeing 737 Max would have taken to the air, marking the return of the most scrutinised aircraft in aviation after a grounding of 20 months.

The return of aircraft, which was suspended after being involved with twin disasters that killed 346 people, has brought some cheer to an industry that has been wrecked by COVID-19.

More importantly, it reiterates the importance of passenger safety, something that aircraft manufacturers, airlines and regulators seem to increasingly compromise in their zeal to push traffic growth and expansion.

That's important. What had led to the two crashes?

Investigations pointed the finger at a stall-prevention software called MCAS, or maneuvering characteristics augmentation system. Instead of helping prevent a stall, MCAS forced planes to nosedive, going beyond the control of pilots.


Was Boeing alone to be blamed?

Surely, the principal responsibility lies on the aircraft manufacturer.

It was no secret that Boeing was under pressure from its European rival Airbus, which had taken a lead in the narrow-body jetliner segment through its Airbus A320neos. Boeing was in a hurry to introduce a worthy rival, but in the process, overlooked significant safety procedures.

The inquiries showed that the airline withheld important information from the FAA, the US regulator. Incredibly, pilots didn't even know the existence of MCAS. Boeing withheld this as it had promised airlines didn't have to spend extra to train their pilots, a bargaining chip to convince clients who were also considering A320neo.

That sounds like a serious flaw. How was FAA responsible?

Critics have said that FAA was "too close" to Boeing, an apparent conflict in interest. Imagine this: the regulator allowed the manufacturer to evaluate and review its own product. It's like saying, a pharma company can check the efficacy of its own new drug!

But what is there to ensure that this won't get repeated?

The risk is always there, as cut-throat competition can always lead to short-cuts. But Boeing has paid the price for its ineptness. The grounding has cost it over $20 billion, a near-irreparable damage on brand and guess what - it has lost much more ground to Airbus. Wasn't the competition with Airbus what all this was about!

How about the FAA?

FAA also seemed to have been chastised. The corrections it had sought from Boeing on the 737 Max go beyond just correcting the software glitch. The hope is that lawmakers will ensure a clear line of separation between the regulator and the companies it regulates.

What is the learning for India?

A lot.

Indian aviation regulator DGCA will study the FAA order on the Max, and decide on the aircraft's availability for operations here. The Max doesn't have much presence here, except for SpiceJet, whose 13 aircraft had been grounded.

Beyond that, safety aviation experts have repeatedly called for a stricter regulator and a more intense supervision of aviation practices. The Air India Express crash in Kozhikode in August, was one instance where the need was again underlined. Were the pilots over-worked as was seen in the Mangaluru crash of 2010? Had the airport followed the right safety protocols?

The industry awaits the investigation results.

Will customers take to 737 Max again?

Customer confidence is low at the moment, and it's not just because of the aircraft. COVID-19 and the fresh lockdowns in Europe, the US and Australia have dampened travelers.

On the 737 Max, customers may keep an eye on how the initial flights have done, and what governments, airlines and regulators have to say. In the end, a layman customer may not be aware of the aircraft type he or she is flying. That is why, the responsibility lies on the governments and regulators, and not the least, on manufacturers and airlines, to ensure safety. It can't be compromised.
Prince Mathews Thomas heads the corporate bureau of Moneycontrol. He has been covering the business world for 16 years, having worked in The Hindu Business Line, Forbes India, Dow Jones Newswires, The Economic Times, Business Standard and The Week. A Chevening scholar, Prince has also authored The Consolidators, a book on second generation entrepreneurs.
first published: Nov 19, 2020 11:46 am

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