Boeing 737 Max: Boeing and the FAA need to rebuild public confidence

Simon Calder
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Many passengers have little interest or awareness in the model of aircraft they are travelling in. You may happen to know that easyJet and Wizz Air fly only Airbus jets, while Ryanair and Jet2 are all-Boeing, and no doubt you can recognise a Boeing 747 or an Airbus A380 Superjumbo. But unless I was paying particular attention I am not sure I could easily discern whether I was stepping aboard an Airbus A330 or a Boeing 767.

Last month when I flew from Cochin to Mumbai with SpiceJet, I failed to notice that the 737 happened to be the most modern variant, the Max. Until this week, I imagine that most of the 200,000 passengers who boarded the new Boeing each day were equally oblivious.

Now, though, we are all attuned to an aircraft with “Max” in its title. You may be familiar with the unusual double-dagger wingtips, which is the easy way to identify the Boeing 737 Max. And in future you may pay more attention to the aircraft type shown in schedules.

For the loved ones of the 157 people aboard the Boeing 737 Max aircraft that fell from the sky on 10 March, life from now on will be cloaked in grief.

The human cost of the tragedy that unfolded on a sunny Sunday morning in Ethiopia is incalculable.

In stark contrast, the market’s cold assessment of the financial consequences is all too measurable. Since the start of March, shares in Boeing have lost about one-sixth of their value.

The reason investors have been unloading their holdings in the giant planemaker: increasing evidence that this state-of-the-art aircraft has a potentially fatal design flaw.

Investigators are focusing on a system that had been designed to enhance safety in the unlikely event of an imminent stall. When the aircraft senses that the angle between the wings and the airflow is too steep, an elevator in the tail goes up and the nose goes down.

“It improves the behaviour of the aeroplane in a non-normal part of the operating envelope,” says Boeing. But the stall-protection system also appears to have the power to threaten what should be an ordinary, safe flight.

The initial report into the earlier crash of a Lion Air flight in Indonesia indicates that pilots felt they had lost control of the aircraft, and struggled vainly to save the lives of the 189 people aboard.

In the wake of the latest tragedy, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) dragged its feet – assuring the world that the Boeing 737 Max was safe even as planes were being turned around in mid-air as a rapidly growing patchwork of airspace was closed down to the model.

Eventually, the FAA declared “an emergency exists related to safety in air commerce” because of “the possibility of a shared cause for the two incidents”.

Boeing’s boss, Dennis Muilenburg, said: “We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”

Aviation safety is built on learning from each tragedy: honouring the victims by devising ways to preserve human life.

In several weeks or a few months, the possible fatal weakness will be remedied and the Max will return to the skies.

When it does, I sense some travellers will be reluctant to fly on the plane. Besides the pilots, passengers must be able to trust the planemaker and the people whose job it is to check and challenge the manufacturer.

Boeing and the FAA have much work to do to rebuild public confidence.