After two unfortunate crashes in March 2019, the 737 MAX aircraft-the newest variant of the narrow-body workhorse from Boeing-was banned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the USA, followed by a global grounding.
Over the several months that followed, it came to light that Boeing had installed a software called the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) on their MAX aircraft, which was determined to be the cause of these crashes.
After many months of work, Boeing was able to win back approval for the jet from the FAA in November 2020. This meant the aircraft could now be assessed and approved for operation in other countries after their own regulatory assessment. Since then, 16 other regulators had approved the MAX, but it was not approved for operations in India or China, which are two major markets for the aircraft.
Grounded, but aircraft gets orders
Even during its grounding, the aircraft continued to win orders from customers across the globe. Till date, 5,894 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft have been ordered, and only 541 have been delivered. Storied aviation names such as United, Southwest and Ryanair have ordered the aircraft over the past couple of years, and the deluge of orders does not seem to stop. After all, the aircraft has much better economics, promising at least 14 percent less fuel burn than the previous version (NG). So any airline would ideally want to induct them in their fleet.
In India, the Boeing 737 MAX is only to be found with one airline, SpiceJet. The airline has 13 737 MAX aircraft already in its fleet, and an outstanding firm order for another 142 such aircraft, apart from the option to buy another 50 aircraft. With the unhealthy financial situation of the carrier, and the bleeding caused across the aviation sector, I don’t expect them to be inducting this entire order in their fleet anymore. But SpiceJet confirmed earlier this week that they hope their 737 MAX aircraft will fly by September-end.
On the other hand, startup airline Akasa, founded by Vinay Dube, ex-CEO of Jet Airways and funded by Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, is very interested in the 737 MAX aircraft as well, planning to order up to a 100 of these jets.
So, it was time that the grounding was lifted. The Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), announced that they will now allow for the 737 MAX to be ungrounded in India as well. The DGCA noted that 345 MAX aircraft have flown over 1,22,824 times after the ungrounding and no untoward incident has happened since.
737 MAX to be brought out of storage state
Here on, the existing 737 MAX aircraft in the country will be first brought out of their storage state, a process called as de-preservation. After maintenance on these aircraft, each one of them will have to undergo a software upgrade as well. Simultaneously, pilots who will fly the 737 MAX aircraft will have to spend some time in the simulator to train for the new aircraft time, and aircraft manuals might have to be updated as well. Once all of this is done, you should start seeing the 737 MAX aircraft in the Indian skies again.
Does all of this mean the aircraft is safe to fly again? I would like to believe so. I imagine the 737 MAX would be the most scrutinised airplane in recent history. I would feel confident about flying on it again, whenever I have the opportunity.
(Ajay Awtaney writes about Indian Aviation on livefromalounge.com. He tweets from @livefromalounge.com)
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