Fallout from in-flight panel explosion on Alaska Airlines flight last week adds to ‘checkered history’ of Boeing’s MAX jets, experts say, and puts even more at risk the company’s once-outstanding reputation for commercial aircraft.
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun admitted earlier this week that the Virginia-based company made a mistake after a Jan. 5 Alaska Airlines flight had a door cap burst shortly after takeoff.
The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all 737 MAX 9s in the United States for inspection after the incident and is investigating Boeing’s compliance with FAA standards.
In the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the eruption.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, says it’s not just the Alaska Airlines incident that is raising concerns about Boeing’s planes.
“The 737 MAX has a very checkered history and has really damaged Boeing’s reputation,” he says. “This has further shaken confidence in the MAX aircraft…It casts further doubt on this aircraft in particular and Boeing in general.”
Nuances of MAX 8 groundings
The FAA grounded Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 line after two fatal accidents, a Lion Air flight in October 2018 and an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March 2019.
The MAX 8 line has been grounded by the FAA for 20 months and more in some jurisdictions like China, which only lifted its ban last year. Transport Canada allowed airlines to fly the MAX 8 jets again in January 2021, two months after receiving approval from the FAA.
Harteveldt says what particularly damaged Boeing’s reputation in these incidents was that investigations revealed that the company had withheld details about new flight stabilization software that had activated during both crashes.
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Even though Boeing came undone in the MAX 8 grounding, the FAA “also had a role to play,” Harteveldt says. The regulator at the time allowed Boeing to self-certify details of the 737 MAX family, a freedom it said the FAA has since revoked.
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After the MAX 8 grounding, Harteveldt says Boeing and the FAA overhauled their approach to aircraft safety and certification.
“Boeing realized they had made a mistake. The FAA also realized it was part of the problem. And there have been legitimate changes in both organizations,” he says.
Following the Alaska Airlines outburst, the FAA again announced it would strengthen oversight of Boeing’s MAX 9 manufacturing processes, including auditing its suppliers.
John Gradek, a professor of aviation management at McGill University, says the response to the Alaska Airlines incident shows how much things have changed since the MAX 8 grounding.
While the FAA waited months after the Lion Air incident until another fatal accident occurred involving the MAX 8s, the regulator took less than 24 hours to issue a ground order in the last case, he notes.
“The regulators are saying, ‘We’re going to err on the side of caution,’” Gradek told Global News. “That for me is a lesson learned and a behavior that I think instills much more confidence in the traveling public, that regulators and aviation oversight will now act and act quickly.”
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But a quick response from the regulator may not be enough to reassure travelers who have booked a flight on a Boeing plane, says Harteveldt.
“A lot of people are afraid of Boeing planes right now, and as a traveler you don’t really have a choice,” he says.
The global aviation market is largely a duopoly between Airbus and Boeing – literally a choice between A or B, says Harteveldt.
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That’s a change from 50 years ago, when there were a multitude of commercial aircraft manufacturers offering choices to airlines and passengers.
After the MAX 8 grounding, some airlines ordered Airbus planes rather than Boeing, Harteveldt says. But Airbus’ production capacity is already running at full capacity today, meaning any airline wanting to get out of Boeing’s market will likely have to wait two years or more to get new planes.
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Boeing could try to restore public confidence in its planes by returning to its marketing materials from the 1960s and 1970s, Harteveldt says, when it sought to woo customers with the experience of flying aboard one. of its planes. Even if customers aren’t the ones ordering the planes, he says airlines will be less likely to buy a fleet of Boeing planes if they don’t believe their passengers will buy a seat on those planes.
With about half of all flights operated by a Boeing aircraft these days, Gradek says it would be difficult, but not impossible, to plan a flight route avoiding the company’s planes.
“It will make life more difficult, it will limit your choices,” he says.
Boeing needs to ‘rethink’ its philosophy, experts say
Although Boeing’s commercial planes had an excellent reputation for safety before the MAX line, Gradek says the company may have lost a step in recent years.
Boeing laid off some 30,000 people when the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the global travel industry. When they did, “a lot of expertise disappeared,” Gradek says. The company has since turned to outsourcing to fill some of those gaps, he adds, including relying on Spirit Aerosystems to assemble the fuselage for its MAX line. Spirit says it is cooperating with the NTSB investigation.
Gradek believes Boeing should go back to the drawing board regarding its reliance on the 737 line, a decades-old model that it chose to revamp rather than offer a new plane for the modern market .
“I think the time has come for Boeing to really rethink their design and their philosophy around commercial aviation, and make sure that they are really thinking about creating an aircraft that is unique, competitive, but also much more environmentally friendly. “environmental and operational,” he said. said.
Alaska Airlines plane received warnings days before eruption, investigators say
Harteveldt agrees with Gradek that Boeing is no longer the innovator it once was in commercial aviation since merging with McDonnell Douglas in 1997 and deepening its presence in the airline industry. defense and aerospace.
“He has no vision. It doesn’t have the innovation it once had,” he says of Boeing’s commercial aircraft business.
Boeing’s stock price has fallen more than 12 percent over the past week. But the lasting impact of the Alaska Airlines blowout remains to be seen, Harteveldt says, pending the results of FAA and NTSB investigations into what exactly went wrong in that incident.
Since then, United Airlines and Alaska Airlines have both discovered cases of other grounded MAX 9 planes where bolts were loose or missing on the key panel lost during the Jan. 5 incident. Once further inspections of the grounded MAX 9 planes are completed, Boeing and the entire travel industry will have a better idea of the extent of these problems, Harteveldt said.
“If it’s a relative handful, that’s one thing. If this turns out to be truly systemic, it is worrying.”