Analysis: Boeing 737 Max crisis

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This year, sadly has been a rough one for the Boeing Company. Being as one of the largest global aerospace manufacturers, the company faced a brutal series of setbacks and failures.

After the two fatal plane crashes of the Boeing 737 Max model within a gap of five months killing 346 passengers in total, led the international aviation authorities to ground the flights of the same model around the world. Following this, the airliner company and its stakeholders including the customers faced a loss of billions of dollars. 

Moreover, amidst this tumultuous time, the company’s Board of Directors took a drastic decision by dismissing the CEO of the company; Mr. Dennis A. Muilenberg.

According to the Aviation Industry analysts, the sudden dismissal of Mr. Muilenberg by the company was a desperate attempt to regain the trust of the regulators and the public. Again the critics pointed out that under the leadership of Mr. David Muilenberg, the company’s failure to amend the blunder led to the shredding of its credibility. This decision was made to redeem and restore public’s faith over the company.

Presently, Mr. David L. Calhoun who is currently the Chairman of Boeing Company will now replace Mr. Muilenberg as the CEO from January 13, 2020.

Meanwhile, the company announced that Mr. Greg Smith who is the Chief Financial Officer of the esteemed company will serve as interim CEO during this transition period.

This poses a question as to where exactly the company went wrong and what are the steps to be taken by similar companies like the Boeing and the Aviation authorities around the world if such unfortunate events take place.

Background: The crashes:

  • The Lion Air Flight 610 crash-

This crash was the first crash of a Max 8 model flight, an upgraded version of Boeing 737.On October 29, 2018, the Lion Air Flight 610, took off from Soekarno- Hatta International Airport at around 06:21 am. On that day, the flight was set to arrive in Pangkal Pinang, the capital city of a small island located in the Java Sea.

The crew called air traffic controllers minutes after the take-off and demanded a return to Jakarta. However the aircraft did not give a mayday distress call and thus they did not turn around. Rather, it banked to the west, made some changes and then plummeted sharply.

Based on a data submitted by the Flight Radar 25 which controls air- traffic, claimed the Lion Air Flight 610 was at an altitude about 5000 feet from where the plane’s descent began. By 06:32 am, the communications with plane was abruptly ended. The plane plunged into sea with such a force that some of the plane’s metal fixtures got disintegrated.

This accident called for an investigation, which in its early phases was led by Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee. A 335-page report was submitted which detailed the reason behind the fatal crash. There was a cockpit issue which was already existing and yet the flight was allowed to take off without the problem being fixed.

Also a crucial sensor was not tested properly. Now this sensor basically feeds information to a software named MCAS [Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System]. MCAS is a software which was designed specifically to prevent planes from stalling.

The investigators main concern revolved around this software and they also affirmed this through their report that how there were incorrect assumptions made on the working of MCAS, and how these deficiencies were poorly overlooked.

The Indonesian authorities also claimed that the pilots were unaware about the functioning of MCAS- a control system which was actually the heart of the flight. The report also presented a series of failures like poor communication, bad design of the flight to inadequate flying skills. In total it was concluded that the design and mechanical problem were the key factors behind the Lion Air Flight crash.

  • Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302-

By the time Boeing and its stakeholders were reeling over the loss of Lion Air Flight’s tragedy, another disaster came along that completely shredded the goodwill that the company maintained in the past decades.

On March 10 2019, the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 was set to travel from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya. It took off at 08:38 local time. But right after six minutes, at 08:44, it crashed 30 miles south-east of the airport near a small town called Bishoftu. All 157 people including the crew on board were killed in this airplane mishap.

At first Ethiopian Airlines could not rule out anything because the take-off performance was normal and accidents caused during a suitable weather conditions was a rarity. But, on a thorough investigation conducted by the Ethiopia Aircraft’s Accident Investigation Bureau, it was found despite a normal take-off this flight faced those problems which were similar to that of Lion Air crash.

The preliminary reports suggested that despite the pilots tried their best to disengage the system and manually steady the plane, the system pushed the nose of the plane with such an uncontrollable force that it crashed at the end. The reports might not have mentioned the name of MCAS, yet it claimed that pilots were having difficulty to control the aircraft’s angle of flight and one of the sensors was giving faulty readings.

In both the above mentioned cases, the Boeing Company from their side did acknowledge that the ‘erroneous activation’ of MCAS was the reason behind these airplane mishaps.

International reaction:

Right after the second crash, the U.S Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] joined with the aviation administration of other countries like South Korea, China, Canada and India grounded the flights of Boeing 737 Max. It has been grounded since March.

It is only after receiving the approval from FAA, the US Airline would be allowed to fly the aircraft and the company is yet to receive the same. Whereas with respect to the European operators, the clearance from the European’s Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] is needed.

Earlier in the month of September, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation has announced that India would be joining EASA and will send their own pilots to test the amended version of 737 Max flight before determining whether it is fit to fly or not.

Apart from these, Boeing faced a number of probes from the U.S lawmakers and the Department of Justice. Over a 100 lawsuits were filed from victims’ families where some alleged that the company had designed a faulty plane while other claimed for a full certification review of 737 Max model.

Airplane safety laws in India –

The Indian Aviation sector is governed under The Aircraft Act 1934, a primary domestic legislation whose basic function is to empower the government to make rules for regulating the manufacture, sale, use import- export and operation of all civil aircrafts.

Similarly we have the Aircraft Rules 1937 that lays down the requirements for flying conditions, airworthiness, registration and licences etc. These rules along with few exceptions are applicable to all Indian registered aircrafts wherever they may be and aircrafts present in and over India.

But regarding an aircraft which registered in a foreign country, then the laws of those country shall apply provided that the basic standards are based on rules established under the Chicago convention. The Directorate General Civil Aviation [DGCA] of India derives its power from these above- mentioned laws on civil aviation and is mainly responsible for the safety and operational issues of the aircrafts.

Its role and function include registration of civil aircrafts, formulating of rules for airworthiness, granting certificates those aircrafts who achieve that standard airworthiness, investigating accidents and taking accident preventive measures etc.

Conclusion:

Airplane accidents or incidents not only causes a loss of property worth billions but also destruction of invaluable human life. Nothing can bring back the lives of those innocent victims who became a prey to a faulty designed plane and the gross negligence shown by the company.

What more disappointing is that instead of finding a viable solution and rectifying it more quickly, the bungled response from the high authorities of the Boeing Company brings nothing but a disgrace to themselves.

Accidents like these can only be prevented to a greater extent if not only the pilots, but also the aviation authorities and aerospace manufacturing companies together comply and adhere to strict guidelines imposed by the lawmakers whose ultimate goal is to ensure the safety and security of passengers.

It is only this safety and security determines the way the authorities are functioning and the success of the companies. Customer’s safety and satisfaction must not be jeopardized at any cost.

Author: K. Aiswarya from National Law University, Odisha.

Editor: Tamanna Gupta from RGNUL, Patiala.

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