SINGAPORE: Following two deadly crashes in less than five months, aviation regulators have yet to give an indication of when the Boeing 737 Max will be allowed to fly again.
Since mid-March, more than 380 aircraft around the world have been grounded, 96 of them in China alone and six in Singapore, part of the SilkAir fleet. For the Singapore Airlines subsidiary, that meant reshuffling flight schedules, extending leases on aircraft and delaying the transfer of older planes to its sister airline Scoot.
But regulatory approval is just one step in getting the 737 Max back in the sky. The real challenge will be winning back confidence among airlines, pilots and, of course, passengers.
In one recent survey of US air travellers, 20 per cent said they would definitely avoid flying on the 737 Max in the first six months after flights resume.
Another 40 per cent said they would be willing to take pricier or less convenient routes to fly on other aircraft.
The business cost for Boeing itself is also beginning to show with the firm reporting no new orders for any of its commercial aircraft for the past two months.
There have been incidents of grounded aircraft before, but the case of the 737 Max is in a different league: A challenge not just of restoring trust but navigating the complicated process by which that trust was lost in the first place.
TRUST WAS LOST WHEN PILOTS WERE BLAMED
In the immediate aftermath of both crashes, Boeing was quick to point to pilot error as the likely cause. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US regulator, backed Boeing, insisting the 737 Max was safe to fly – only backtracking after other regulators around the world issued their own orders grounding the plane.
What has subsequently emerged, however, is a troubling picture of a close relationship between regulator and manufacturer, with the FAA effectively outsourcing much of the aircraft’s testing and certification process to Boeing itself.
It’s a story that has its roots in the design and development stages of the 737 Max and the intense competition between US-based Boeing and Europe’s Airbus.
In its fierce rivalry with Airbus, Boeing was determined to make its latest iteration of the 737 as competitive as possible. In terms of units sold, it is the most successful commercial passenger aircraft ever built, yet much of its basic design and control system dates back to the late 1960s.
In part this is what has made the 737 so successful. Familiarity keeps pilot training costs down and makes servicing and maintaining the aircraft easier and cheaper.
In order to maximise fuel efficiency, Boeing focused on updating the 737's power plant – its engines. Because these are larger, they have to be positioned further forward from the wings, which affects the balance of the aircraft.
However, in order to appeal to airlines, the jets actual flight controls were designed to require minimal retraining for pilots who were familiar with flying earlier models of the 737.
To bridge the gap, engineers developed special software to manage the way the larger engines altered the jet’s handling and to prevent stalling.
As a result Boeing was able to build a training programme that would see most pilots transferring from earlier 737 models needing only to spend a few hours doing a course on an iPad, rather than in a costly simulator, in order to fly.
Such an approach undoubtedly makes sense when looking at numbers on accounting spreadsheets. But after two deadly crashes, it isn’t hard to see why some observers have interpreted this as cutting corners on safety.
Compounding this have been further revelations; for example, that a system for alerting pilots to problems with information from the plane’s angle-of-attack (AoA) sensors was made an optional feature on the 737 Max for which airlines were charged extra.
Investigators believe that faulty information from the AoA sensors caused the anti-stall software to repeatedly override pilot commands, ultimately forcing both jets into a fatal dive.
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However, because the optional warning indicator was not installed, the theory is that pilots were either unaware of what was triggering the software or that Boeing’s training programme had not been rigorous enough for them to know how to override it.
BOEING PLEDGES TO DO BETTER
As it tries to get the 737 Max flying again, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has pledged to “do everything possible to earn and re-earn that trust and confidence from our airline customers and the flying public”.
Its engineers are working on a software overhaul of the aircraft’s systems and a revised training plan for pilots.
But the Chicago-based firm will find it hard to shake off the perception that it has tried to deflect responsibility and been arrogant in its approach to safety. Critics, including some major shareholders, have been pressing Boeing to restructure its senior management and how its board oversees operations.
Meanwhile the FAA, following criticism that it has been unduly close to Boeing, is pledging to take a tougher line and announced last month that it would take “as long as it takes” to ensure the jets are safe.
It has also said it will work with other international regulators to evaluate Boeing’s fixes, but that it won’t try to force them to agree with its findings.
With more than 30 other regulators involved though, building consensus will be vital. For example, if the FAA re-certifies the 737 Max as safe to fly but another regulator elsewhere in the world disagrees, confidence in the jet will only be further undermined.
There are also political risks and considerations that might come into play – particularly in the context of the ongoing trade war between China and the US.
With China by far Boeing’s most important market - and Chinese airlines the largest customers for the 737 Max – Beijing could see an opportunity to score some points by pressing the Chinese regulator to block or delay any re-certification of the plane.
Meanwhile the clock is ticking. Airlines are keen to get their aircraft flying again – albeit once they are satisfied it is safe to do so.
After all, almost 400 planes are currently gathering dust at airports around the world and more than 4,000 are on order.
Then there are the peculiarities of the global aircraft market to consider – primarily one that is effectively a duopoly between Boeing and Airbus.
For airlines in need of new aircraft, it is not possible to simply switch to another alternative, as consumers might do with, say, a brand of washing detergent. Aircraft orders have long lead times, production capacity is extremely inelastic and choice is limited.
Ultimately, when regulators do eventually give the green light, returning the 737 Max to flight will depend on the confidence of passengers and – crucially - pilots.
Pilots take safety extremely seriously and are acutely aware of the responsibility they face when flying planes carrying hundreds of passengers. As a community, pilots also talk with other pilots – particularly in online forums.
In the wake of the two 737 crashes and subsequent revelations about its design and software, many complained they felt betrayed and mislead by Boeing.
With this in mind, airlines and regulators will need to work closely with pilots to ensure all questions are answered and residual doubts overcome. Any impression that pilots are being coerced to fly the 737 Max or are otherwise misinformed will only do further damage.
Once pilots are convinced, that will undoubtedly help to reassure passengers. Airlines would do well to ensure that this message is communicated clearly in the run up to bringing the aircraft back into service.
In the jet set days of the 1960s and 70s, a popular cliché doing the rounds was “if it isn’t a Boeing, I’m not going”. It was even adopted by Boeing for some of its advertising campaigns.
The controversy over the 737 Max has cast a dark shadow over that confident image.
The lingering question is what Boeing will do to address the root causes that brought us to this point and how it, as a company, will change its culture to ensure that similar incidents don’t happen again.
Jochen Wirtz is Professor of Marketing and Vice Dean (Graduate Studies) at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.