Since it was placed into service in 2017, the Boeing 737 Max passenger jet has seen several setbacks. In the latest misfortune, though there were no injuries, a portion of the fuselage of an Alaska Airlines aircraft broke off midair on January 5. The flight was carrying 174 passengers at an altitude of 4,900 m above Portland when it happened.
And the incident opened a Pandora’s Box. Alaska Airlines, along with its industry peers around the world, had to ground the 737 Max jets operating in their fleet for carrying out rigorous inspections, with the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration taking a grim view of the whole situation.
Things Getting Messier
During the 737 Max fleet inspections, United Airlines found bolts requiring “additional tightening”. So basically, the problem is all about “installation issues” in crucial areas like door plugs potentially compromising the aircraft’s structural integrity. The aircraft, on record, right now possesses “loose hardware” around its airframe, which will bring further FAA wrath.
Even though the grounding of 737 MAX around the world has resulted in flight cancellations and the subsequent monetary damages for the aviation sector, the fact that the aircraft contains “loose hardware” may make passengers jittery about boarding the jetliner in the near future.
“The door plug is a piece of fuselage, with a window, that fills the space where an emergency exit would be in certain configurations. It was this part of the Alaska Airlines plane which dramatically fell off mid-flight over the US state of Oregon, eventually landing in a teacher’s back garden,” commented a BBC article.
Even though the crew took timely action and landed the aircraft without any serious injuries, the images of a wide hole in the side of the aircraft, oxygen masks dangling from the ceiling and reports suggesting that a young boy sitting near the affected area had his shirt ripped off by the force of the decompression were harrowing indeed.
The plane’s door plug, recovered from a teacher’s backyard in Oregon, was found without the four bolts, as per the United States National Transportation Safety Board. It further suspects that the bolts were missing from the flight’s take-off but they might have come off in the descent.
Pilots also reported about pressurisation warning lights on three previous flights made by the accident-stricken Alaska Airlines aircraft. The jet was prevented from making long-haul flights over water so that it “could return very quickly to an airport” in the event the warnings happened again, NTSB chief Jennifer Homendy stated further.
India, which is one of the fastest-growing global aviation markets and operates some 40 737 Max planes, found a missing part (in the form of a washer) on one aircraft.
A Plane Doomed To Fail?
The Boeing 737 Max, which was designed to rival the Airbus A320neo family and was heralded as a breakthrough in aviation in 2015 (with more efficient CFM International LEAP engines and aerodynamic changes like split-tip winglets), has experienced a string of setbacks since going into service in 2017.
According to the FAA, the Alaska Airlines’ 737-9 was virtually brand-new, having been produced in 2023 and approved last November.
However, the Boeing 737 Max is not new to mishaps.
Lion Air Crash In 2018
On October 28, 2018, a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max crashed off the coast of Indonesia, killing 189 people soon after it took off from Jakarta. A month following the incident, Indonesian investigators concluded that poor crew performance, insufficient pilot training, and a design flaw were to blame.
The automated system known as MCAS ((Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) was designed to keep the aircraft from plunging to the ground, reportedly causing the mishap. The national body responsible for transport safety said, “The design and certification of MCAS was inadequate.” Similarly, one of this system’s sensors was “poorly calibrated.” a flaw that the maintenance crews failed to find.
Ethiopian Airlines’ 737 MAX Crash In 2019
On March 10, 2019, a little over five months later, an Ethiopian Airlines 737-800 MAX crashed shortly after takeoff. The 149 passengers and eight crew personnel perished. The aircraft was travelling to Nairobi, Kenya, from Addis Ababa. The Boeing anti-stall system, while turned on, was questioned in the preliminary investigation report.
The incident saw countries around the world grounding and banning the aircraft type from operating in their airspaces. The model saw a temporary manufacturing halt in 2020. Boeing stopped producing its aircraft in January 2020. Beginning in 2020, the 737 MAX, like its counterparts in the US, Brazil, and Canada, was allowed to fly over European airspace again after being grounded for two years.
Only after making adjustments to the flight control system was the FAA able to approve the restoration to operation.
‘Inadequately Tightened’ Nut
After an international operator found a bolt missing its nut during a regular inspection, the manufacturer notified airlines in December 2023 that the devices needed to be inspected to check for loose parts in the rudder control system. Then, on an aeroplane that had not yet been delivered, the aircraft manufacturer noticed a nut that “was not properly tightened.”
More recently, issues with the fuselage—specifically, the back bulkhead of the aircraft—forced Boeing to reduce its delivery schedule. Boeing delivered more than 1,370 737 MAX models by the end of December 2023, and it presently has more than 4,000 on order.
A Bad Investment?
The accidents and grounding of the particular aircraft type cost Boeing an estimated USD 20 billion in fines, compensation and legal fees in 2020 alone, with indirect losses of over USD 60 billion from 1,200 cancelled orders.
In 2021, Boeing also paid USD 2.5 billion to settle the United States’ Department of Justice’s fraud conspiracy case against the aviation giant.
Investigations revealing the FAA and Boeing colluding on recertification test flights, apart from attempting to cover up important information and retaliating against whistleblowers, harmed the company further.
The time frame between 2020-23 has all been about the aircraft getting grounded due to structural and software-related failures, going back to the drawing board to identify and correct the engineering lapses and then being rigorously tested to validate the fact that the aircraft is meeting all the crucial safety parameters laid down by the aviation watchdogs around the world.
Just when it seemed that Boeing finally is getting its act together with the 737 Max, as airlines around the world not only resumed their operations with the jet, but were also placing new orders, came the Alaska Airlines mishap.
Expert in aeronautics at the consulting firm Icare, Bertrand Vilmer, cautions that “we must be careful before accusing the aircraft manufacturer.” Boeing will undoubtedly continue to suffer as a result of this incident. The price of the American company fell precipitously on Wall Street, around 7%. Spirit AeroSystems, one of Boeing’s subcontractors, also faced the heat in the American stock market.
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun and the company’s other top official, Stan Deal have now admitted “the real seriousness of the accident” as the company launched checks into its quality controls and processes around the 737 MAX 9.
Tragedy after tragedy has made people wonder if Boeing’s best-selling aeroplane, the 737 Max, is cursed. Airlines worldwide are currently inspecting their models, but it is unsure how many countries would be willing to stick around with the jet.