Keep the 737 MAX issues in perspective

Boeing’s shares took a nosedive and even stalwart customers like Southwest which have hundreds of orders for the 737 MAX will renegotiate their prices.

By
March 24, 2019 17:27
Boeing 737 MAX unveiled (REUTERS/JASON REDMOND)

Boeing 737 MAX unveiled (REUTERS/JASON REDMOND). (photo credit: REUTERS/JASON REDMOND)

 
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Perspective is best defined as a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view.

It was back on May 16, 2017 that it was delivered to its proud owner. Based in Kuala Lumpur, little know Malindo Airways received the newest addition to a proud American company. Airline aficionados will no doubt discover that Malindo Air is in fact a subsidiary of Lion Air.
Boeing, based near Seattle, Washington, is an American corporation that in addition to many products, designs, manufactures and sells airplanes. Boeing is among the largest aircraft manufacturers, as well as one of the largest defense contractors. It’s the largest exporter in the United States by dollar value. William Boeing was the aviation pioneer who founded Boeing in 1916 manufacturing seaplanes. Fast forward through two world wars and the realization that there was a market for commercial aircraft, and by 1958, Boeing began delivery of its 707, the United States first commercial jet airliner. The next decade saw the 707 and 747 as the backbone of many airline fleets, a near monopoly held by Boeing into the ‘70s. Boeing continue to roll out new planes; the 747, still in use today, originated in 1968.


After several decades of success, Boeing lost ground to Airbus and by 2003 lost its lead in the airliner market. Subsequently, Boeing streamlined its production and inaugurated its new model, the 787 Dreamliner, using cutting head technology. By 2011, Boeing was hesitating between re-engineering the 737 or developing an all new small airplane. When Lion Air received a $2-billion dollar order for more than  200 737 MAX planes the decision was made. So what makes the 737 a MAX?


It’s a narrow-body aircraft series known as the fourth generation of the Boeing 737, with more fuel efficient engines and aerodynamic improvements. The airline world embraced the 737 MAX with huge desire and over 5,011 orders have been place. 350 planes have actually been delivered in the last 22 months. Composite parts were increased in the planes manufacturing; robotic drilling machines were increased and monthly production rates hit 57 planes this year.


Let’s be clear: the 737 MAX in its first year of service saw nearly 130 planes delivered to 28 customers, but more importantly saw 41,000 flights flying nearly 7 million passengers.


I reiterate – 41,000 flights in its first full year in the skies. So the design, including its split tip wingtip device to maximize lift with a better fuel burn was working as designed. Keep in mind the plane is designed to fly by wire. Fly-by-wire is a system that replaces conventional manual flight controls of an aircraft with an electronic interface. The movements of flights controls are converted to electronic signals transmitted by wires.


One more salient fact on the design: The engines of the 737 MAX are placed higher and further forward in relation to the wing than on previous 737s, those in use by El Al for example. This higher placement may lead to destabilization of the aircraft pitch so Boeing designed a software system to compensate.


If the 737 MAX aircraft’s nose pitches up higher than usual, potentially leading to a stall, this software, or MCAS system, senses the excess lift and automatically lowers the aircraft’s nose to avoid the stall. If this sensor malfunctions though, the software may initiate a sudden dive, for which the crew may be unprepared. This single point of failure of this feature is considered a potential design flaw without adequate crew preparation. In the United States, the FAA was evaluating remedies for the possible flaw and investigating better pilots training.


Which brings us to last October. On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610, a scheduled domestic flight using the 737 MAX operated by the Indonesian airline Lion Air crashed into the Java Sea 12 minutes after takeoff. All 189 passengers and crew were killed in the accident. The preliminary report tentatively attributed the accident to erroneous computer data and automatic nose-down trim commanded by Boeing’s new MCAS software. It must be pointed out this was only the preliminary report.


Subsequently, when another 737 MAX resulted in fatalities all hell broke loose. On March 10, an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi crashed 6 minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 passengers and crew. Initial reports indicated that the pilot struggled to control the airplane in a manner similar to circumstances of the Lion Air crash. Investigators at the crash scene found evidence that an airplane control surface was positioned to make the aircraft nose pitch down, as apparently happened in the Lion Air crash. Experts suggested this evidence further pointed to MCAS as at fault in the crash.


In addition to the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, Boeing 737 MAX pilots in the United States registered several complaints about the way the jet performed in flight, including reports that pilots in the United States may have experienced similar issues to what happened in the Lion Air crash. Governments around the world decided enough was enough, and started banning the 737 MAX planes. While the US was slow to join the parade, President Donald Trump announced that the FAA would issue orders grounding Boeing 737 MAX airlines.


Today and for the near future, there is not a single 737 MAX plane in the air. Initial reports and satellite tracking shows that the two planes both experienced unusual vertical oscillations. A potential stall is when an airline climbs at an angle too steep it can risk losing speed and stall. Thus a rapid descent which could cause the pilot to lose control of the aircraft. Boeing’s MCAS system was designed to measure the aircraft’s speed and angle. If the software predicts a stall is imminent, MCAS takes control of the plane and noses it downwards. However if sensor readings are faulty, the system could nose the plane down during takeoff, even if the plane is flying normally.


From the little that has been reported, it appears quite likely that this is what transpired in both fatal crashes and as the pilots tried wrestling back the control the software forced the plane in a steep vertical descent. Boeing seems to agree with this analysis, and is feverishly rewriting code to fix their flawed system. The FAA is expected to sign off on Boeing’s patch in the near future and a roll out of the software upgrade is downloaded. This software change does not necessarily mean that the grounding of the planes will be lifted but it should happen sooner than later.


Boeing’s shares took a nosedive and even stalwart customers like Southwest which have hundreds of orders for the 737 MAX will renegotiate their prices. Other customers have signaled they too may back away from orders. The long term impact on Boeing will depend on the outcome of the investigation. The 737 MAX is the fastest selling plane in Boeing’s history and with 5,000 orders won’t be derailed for long. The price of each MAX is between $45-$50 million. While deliveries have been halted, production continues unabated. Airlines will demand compensation and Boeing will oblige them. As a company that earns billions of dollars every year, Boeing will be able to absorb any compensation costs.


Remember Boeing’s technological delight? The 787 Dreamliner that El Al has announced to be her financial savior had a rocky start. In fact, engine problems when the Dreamliners were first delivered forced Boeing to ground the entire fleet in late 2017. Back then Virgin Atlantic and United Airlines which had been promoting their newest planes were forced to ground their entire fleet to great embarrassment to the airlines and to Boeing.


So keep the 737 MAX issues in perspective. My sources tell me that come May, the 737 MAX will again take flight. The only thing you have control over is perspective. You don’t always have control over the situation. But you do have a choice about how you view it.


Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. 
For questions and comments email him at mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il

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