In today’s newsletter, we will talk about the whole Boeing 737 Max saga and all the events that led up to it.


The Story

Boeing is one of the largest commercial aircraft manufacturers in the world. However, of late, the company has had to deal with a bit of turbulence. In a series of unfortunate events, two of its aircraft malfunctioned midair, sending hundreds of passengers plummeting to their death. When the second aircraft crashed, airlines the world over were forced to ground all Boeing 737 Max airplanes (the malfunctioning aircraft) pending an investigation. And when Boeing finally realized the fallout was too much to contain, they finally announced that the company would halt the production of all 737 Max airplanes until the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gives them the all-clear. Which for all practical purposes could be — never.

But the questions still remain.

How on earth did Boeing manufacture a faulty aircraft and how did regulators ever let it fly?

Well, it all began when American Airlines called Boeing to tell them they were considering placing a large order for a new fleet of more fuel-efficient aircraft with a rival company — Airbus. They said they were looking at buying the new Airbus A320neo and Boeing suddenly realised it had a massive problem on its hands.

When the development of A320neo was originally announced, Boeing wasn’t really that concerned. They thought the plane would probably end up being too pricey for most airlines and instead of retaliating immediately, they decided to take things slow and build a new plane from scratch. But the call from American Airlines derailed those plans almost instantaneously and sent Boeing into ‘do or die’ mode.

Now, building an airplane from the ground up takes time. So, Boeing decided to upgrade one of its existing models, the Boeing 737 and churn out a more swanky fuel-efficient version — the Boeing 737 Max. Obviously, this also meant the company was under some serious time constraints. So, Boeing did the next most logical thing — Push its staff to the brink (*eye roll*).

Technical drawings for the model were being churned out at double the pace, workers from other departments were pulled in for the Max project, and timely delivery took precedence over quality. The idea was to make small but significant changes to 737 while sticking to the original design. This, they believed would help with the certification. The engineers were also instructed to not make any changes that would necessitate additional training for the pilots. The company wanted to keep the cost low and get it done ASAP.

And soon enough the Boeing 737 Max was there for the world to see. The regulators approved it without a hitch and American Airlines decided to buy aircraft from both Airbus and Boeing. So it was a win.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long.

Like Airbus, Boeing fit the aircraft with more fuel-efficient engines. But the new engines were heavier and needed to be positioned further ahead on the aircraft’s body. This placement had a problem. The plane was now prone to titling far beyond acceptable limits and potentially even stalling mid-air. To counter this, Boeing designed a sensor that could detect such stalls and automatically pitch the aircraft’s nose downwards to stabilize it. Since the software worked without manual intervention, Boeing rationalized there was no real need to tell the pilots about this new feature.

The problem, however, was that pilots had no way of knowing if the sensor was actually malfunctioning. And this little snafu led to Boeing 737 Max’s literal downfall.

The pilots of the doomed flights Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian Airlines 302 wound up struggling against a piece of software they had no idea even existed and one that had unwittingly sent their planes into a nosedive. Hundreds of people lost their lives and most countries immediately issued a diktat ordering all 737 Max aircraft to be grounded indefinitely pending a thorough investigation into the matter.

And on Monday, almost 14 months since the first crash, Boeing finally announced that they would be suspending the production of 737 Max altogether, as the company was now uncertain if the aircraft would be in service ever again.

Now obviously, this will have a sizeable impact on Boeing and all the airlines that currently own the 737 Max. For instance, SpiceJet will have to deal with the fallout as they only recently (in 2017) ordered 205 of these planes. Now albeit only 13 have actually been delivered, all of them are currently grounded. SpiceJet maintains that Boeing’s grounding will not affect its current operations but the biggest loss may be in terms of opportunity cost.

Boeing’s predicament means that SpiceJet will no longer be able to enjoy the benefits of fuel-saving and the margins that come with it. In fact, this may also put a damper on SpiceJet’s plans of overseas expansion at a time when competitors like Indigo and Vistara are going international.

So yeah Boeing messed up big time. People lost lives and multiple airline companies are now trying to scramble and fix things before this starts affecting operations. And before we leave, here’s a nice quote to remind everyone the moral of the story once again.

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer”- Henry David Thoreau

Goodbye :)

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