After the Ethiopian Flight ET302 crashed on Sunday, the whole world is still grieving the 157 victims of the disaster.
However, this is the second deadly Boeing 737 MAX 8 crash in the span of fewer than 6 months. Back in October, a Lion Air MAX 8 plunged into the sea on flight JT 610. The two accidents have raised quite a few safety concerns about the newest Boeing 737 jet.
Subsequently, after the crash in Ethiopia, airlines and aviation authorities have grounded MAX 8 jets. In just three days, almost all of the global Boeing 737 MAX 8 fleet is sitting parked on the ground, generating millions of losses for airlines.
But how did it come to this?
Let’s run through the recent events and eventually, answer the big question: is Boeing done with the 737 MAX?
The Boeing 737 is arguably one of the most popular commercial jets currently still flying in the skies. According to Boeing, the manufacturer has delivered 10.510 various variants of the 737. 376 of those deliveries is the Boeing 737 MAX model.
Compared to the A320, the closest rival of the 737, Airbus has delivered a total of 8.674 A320s to airlines around the world.
Nevertheless, Boeing established the 737 replacement study in order to replace the popular narrow-body. Developed from the ground-breaking Boeing 707, the company realized that the jet has come to its limits. It needed to come up with a new design to compete with Airbus.
But Boeing did not want to re-design the wings, slap on a new engine and roll with it. The market asked for a new jet.
Or did it? Airbus proved Boeing wrong. It introduced the A320 with new engines and called it the Airbus A320neo (new engine option). Afterward, orders started to pour in. Surprisingly, American Airlines, which pretty much operated Boeing aircraft up to this point, also ordered quite a hefty number of the new A320neo. Airbus finally started to put a huge dent in Boeing’s hold of the market in the United States.
Boeing had to react. In order to save money and release the new jet faster, the company eventually had to re-engine the 737. The Boeing 737 MAX family was born and announced in 2011.
Equipped with new CFM International LEAP-1B engines, the aircraft promised an unprecedented level of fuel savings. Boeing said that the newest 737 generation will be 4% more efficient than the A320neo.
Coming out of the gate, Boeing also announced that they secured almost 500 orders for the newest jet. To be exact, 496 is the correct number.
The 4% became a very important selling point for the manufacturer. Above all, Boeing promised airlines that they would not have to spend ridiculous amounts of money to train their pilots on the MAX. They are virtually the same as the previous generation of the 737, so a few hours of theoretical classes should be sufficient. Or so Boeing thought so.
As I mentioned before, 496 order commitments is a huge number. But to fit the new LEAP-1B engines, Boeing had to make some changes to the general design of the 737. To sum up the changes, Boeing added new split tip winglets, a new tail cone, revised APU and exhaust inlet. The Seattle based manufacturer also removed the aft-body vortex generators.
Additionally, Boeing included a higher nose gear and new display screens for the pilots. While these changes don’t seem to be very radical, their eventual impact would be very significant.
The new nose gear put up the aircraft’s nose higher than usual. With the new engines generating a lot more power, the nose went up even more. After conducting various tests, Boeing realized that their new jet is a bit too prone to encountering stalls in certain situations.
So, to keep the handling characteristics the same as the previous 737 generation, Boeing installed MCAS on the new Boeing 737 MAX.
In order not to repeat ourselves, as we talked about MCAS right here, I’ll be short in explaining the system.
MCAS, an acronym for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System is a software solution to prevent the Boeing 737 MAX from stalling. When the pilots have switched off the autopilot, the Angle of Attack is too high, the flaps are up and the aircraft is going through a steep turn, MCAS turns itself on.
The system shuts down when the AoA is normal again. Pilots can also reverse the system by manually taking over the controls.
However, you remember how I mentioned that one of the biggest selling points was that pilots would not require much training to switch to the MAX?
Yeah, that training did not include any information about MCAS. According to The New York Times, both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Authority decided that pilots did not need to know about the behavior when the aircraft has a higher-than-normal AoA.
While investigators are still studying the information about the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines disasters, a lot of fingers are pointed at Boeing, FAA and finally, MCAS.
It seems like the decision not to inform the pilots about the MCAS has backfired massively.
During all of these events, a lot of aviation experts and enthusiasts have compared the current Boeing 737 MAX situation to that of the de Havilland Comet.
In short, the Comet had a very huge design flaw. But before everyone found out about the flaws, everyone absolutely adored it. After multiple flight cycles of pressurization and depressurization, the fuselage of the Comet would start showing cracks. Eventually, the fuselage would pop open and disintegrate mid-air.
While the first few fatal crashes did not influence the public opinion that much at first, the South African Airways Flight 201 finally grounded the Comet. Eventually, it led to the downfall of de Havilland, the company that built the Comet.
However, the difference is that Boeing has many other aircraft that bring in a profit. The 787, the soon-coming 777X and the regular 777, 767 and even the Boeing 747 has still many unfilled orders that Boeing will undoubtedly make a profit off.
On the other hand, a lot of people are angry at Boeing’s and the FAA’s antics. More than half of the global Boeing 737 MAX 8 fleet is sitting on tarmacs idle, as authorities want to prevent any more disasters.
Except, of course, the FAA. The Canadian authorities also permit airlines to operate the Boeing 737 MAX. Boeing and FAA have released statements that there is no basis to ground the jet in North America.
But what does the future hold for the Boeing’s most popular jet?
Boeing has promised a software update that will adjust the way MCAS behaves. But before that happens, I highly doubt the aircraft will come off the tarmac, at least for now.
Multiple similar accidents to the same aircraft type have not happened for quite some time now, so this is very unusual. Thus, airlines and aviation authorities are going to be very hesitant to allow the Boeing 737 MAX to fly until the investigators find out why does the 737 crash and the aircraft manufacturer can fix the design flaws.
However, the whole ordeal might cost a lot of money to Boeing. The company has already lost more than $35 billion in market capitalization since Sunday.
Airlines, namely Norwegian Air Shuttle, have come out and stated publicly that they will demand compensation for their 18 grounded MAX jets. More carriers are likely to follow Norwegian Air.
Nevertheless, it is too early to jump onto solid conclusions on why did the jet crash. Some have pointed out that the Lion Air 737 was not even in an airworthy state. Additionally, there are no preliminary reasons behind the Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 crash.
It’s just too early to jump on very radical conclusions.
So, to answer the question I raised in the beginning. Is Boeing canceling the Boeing 737 MAX?
It is very doubtful. The MAX 7, MAX 10 and MAX 200 are yet to enter commercial service. Furthermore, safety is everybody’s priority. Profit as well, so if it’s truly the fault of MCAS, I’m sure Boeing will be quick to fix their mistakes.