Wed, Mar 20, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Boeing 737 crashes raise tough questions on aircraft automation

Automation has changed how the airline industry and its pilots operate, mostly for the better, but it has also given rise to numerous new challenges that have not been fully overcome

By Benedikt Kammel  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

Tom Enders just could not resist the swipe at the competition. It was June 2011 and the CEO of Airbus was on a stage at the Paris Air Show after the planemaker won in a matter of days an unprecedented 600 orders for its upgraded A320neo airliner, while Boeing stood on the sidelines.

“If our colleagues in Seattle still maintain we’re only catching up with their 737, I must ask myself what these guys are smoking,” Enders said to the general amusement of the audience, while Boeing representatives at the back of the room looked on.

Boeing had wavered on its decision whether to follow Airbus’s lead and re-engine the 737 or go with an all-new aircraft.

Customers were willing to wait for “something more revolutionary,” then-Boeing head of commercial aircraft Jim Albaugh said at the time.

However, the European manufacturer’s blowout success with the A320neo, essentially a re-engined version of its popular narrow-body family, would soon force Boeing’s hand.

As the A320neo became the fastest-selling airplane in civil aviation history, with Airbus picking off loyal Boeing customers like American Airlines, the US company ditched the pursuit of an all-new jet and responded in July 2011 with its own redesign, the 737 MAX.

“The program was launched in a panic,” said Sash Tusa, an analyst at Agency Partners, an equity research firm in London. “What frightened Boeing most of all was losing their biggest and most important customer. American Airlines was the catalyst.”

It turned out that Chicago-based Boeing was not too late to the party in the end: While the 737 MAX did not quite replicate the neo’s order book, it did become the company’s fastest seller as airlines scrambled to cut their fuel bills with new engines that promised savings of 20 percent or more.

All told, the 737 MAX raked in about 5,000 orders, keeping the playing field fairly level in the global duopoly between Airbus and Boeing.

Now the 737 MAX is grounded globally, after two almost factory-fresh jets crashed in rapid succession. As a result, the repercussions of Boeing’s response to Airbus’s incursion are under the microscope.

Getting particular scrutiny are the use of more powerful, fuel-saving engines and automated tools to help pilots control the aircraft.

After the grounding, Boeing said that it “continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX,” and that it was supporting the decision to idle the jets “out of an abundance of caution.”

The company declined to comment beyond its public statements.

In late October last year, an airplane operated by Lion Air went down minutes after taking off in Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board.

Then on Sunday last week, another 737 MAX crashed, this time in Ethiopia en route to Kenya. Again, none of the 157 people on board survived the impact.

There are other similarities that alarmed airlines and regulators and stirred public opinion, leading to the grounding of the 737 MAX fleet of more than 350 airplanes.

“The track of the Ethiopian Airlines flight was very close and behaved very similar to the Lion Air flight,” the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said.

After decades of steadily declining aircraft accidents, the question of how two identical new airplanes could simply fall out of the sky minutes after takeoff has led to intense scrutiny of the 737 MAX’s systems.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top