Boeing's fault-prone 737 Max can be flown over India, but not by Indian carriers

The B737 Max was banned in 2019 following two fatal crashes within a space of about four and a half months

Boeing's fault-prone 737 Max can be flown over India, but not by Indian carriers
A Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft. Image courtesy: Boeing

The Indian aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has allowed international airlines to fly the controversial Boeing 737 Max over the Indian airspace. However, operating the B737 Max to and from Indian airports continues to be prohibited. 

The ban on these planes would not apply to "foreign-registered Boeing 737 Max aircraft, for overflying the Indian airspace provided that the aircraft has been permitted by the regulatory authority of the state of registry of the said aircraft for conduct of such operations and subject to obtaining permission from DGCA", the regulator said in its order dated April 20, 2021. 

Also, foreign-registered B737 Max aircraft currently grounded in India have been permitted to conduct "operational readiness" flights, followed by "ferry flights outside India". For doing so, the concerned aircraft have to have the requisite permission from the regulatory authority of the country in which it is registered and also from the DGCA. Such flights must also fulfil "such conditions as may be considered necessary by the DGCA for safety of operations". 

Accordingly, foreign lessors are allowed to fly their grounded B737 Max planes out of India with DGCA permission, the Hindustan Times reported. The DGCA order added that special flight permits may be issued in accordance with Rule 55A of Aircraft Rules, 1937 so that the Max planes can be flown "to a base for storage, repairs, alterations and maintenance". 

A SpiceJet B737 Max lands. Image courtesy: Youtube

The order applies to all people operating the Boeing Company Model 737-8 and 737-9 (referred to collectively as the 737 Max, according to the US Federal Aviation Administration) planes in Indian territory and also to Indian and foreign carriers permitted by India to conduct flights with the two aforementioned models. In India, SpiceJet used to operate 12 B737 Max planes, which are grounded at present. The defunct Jet Airways used to operate five B737 Max planes, but they were grounded as a result of non-payment of dues of lessors.       

A senior industry official told Moneycontrol that the DGCA order doesn't allow SpiceJet to fly the Max planes for operational readiness and it is possible that lessors may want to take them back. Sources told the website that Jet Airways' Max planes may be acquired back by the US-based lessor GECAS. The company had leased 12 B737 Max planes to the grounded airline.

Also read: Boeing 737 Max could have seen 15 more crashes, but why did DGCA ignore threat?

The B737 Max was banned all over the world in March 2019 following two crashes in quick succession, killing nearly 350 people. First, a Lion Air B737 Max 8 en route from Jakarta's Soekarno–Hatta International Airport to Depati Amir Airport in Pangkal Pinang on October 29, 2018, crashed into the Java Sea 13 minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. Then on March 10, 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines flight operating the same type of aircraft, flying from the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, crashed six minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 people aboard.

The grounded Jet Airways was the first to start B737 Max service in India. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BoeingAirplanes

India banned the operation of the aircraft on March 13, 2019, "from/to Indian airports" and added that the aircraft must not "transit or enter into Indian airspace". Earlier this month, the DGCA had denied permission to the UAE budget carrier FlyDubai to operate the B737 Max to India or overfly the Indian airspace. A senior DGCA official said at that time that some more time was needed to gauge the performance of the aircraft, The Times of India reported. 

The aircraft's stall-prevention system called Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was blamed by the investigators for both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes. 

The MCAS is a safety system installed on the B737 Max to control the plane's tendency to tilt nose-up because of the size and placement of the engines, a Live Mint report had pointed out. It repeatedly shoves the nose of the plane down if the plane perceives it is in a stall.

FlyDubai was earlier denied permission by DGCA to India or overfly the Indian airspace. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Anna Zvereva

In both the crashes, erroneous sensor data triggered the MCAS and strongly pushed the nose of the plane down so much so that it went out of the pilots' control, sending the nearly brand-new jets into deadly plunges.

The MCAS was subsequently altered to prevent it from getting repeatedly activated and was re-engineered to limit how sharply the aircraft can dive. Redesigning of the plane’s flight-control computer was done to improve redundancy as well. Other fixes, according to Boeing, included updating of pilot training manuals, cockpit safety alert as standard to show if the second angle of attack sensor displays a different reading and newer models were planned to get an extra sensor. 

Also read -- Boeing's B737 Max: Tragic hero for some, untouchable for others

According to an article in Plane Vanilla, the FAA had estimated that there could have been 15 more crashes during the lifetime of the B737 Max if the MCAS was not fixed.

In November last year, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cleared the Max to fly again, after a 20-month ban -- the longest in aviation history. However, regulators in the other parts of the world chose to wait and watch. Since then, other regulators, notably those in Brazil, Europe, Canada and the UK, had allowed the plane to be brought back into the skies. Twenty airlines across the world have already brought back the Max and over 180 such planes were in service, Moneycontrol reported in April 2021. 

Brazilian carrier Gol was the first to return the B737 Max into service, launching the first flight on December 9, 2020, just 10 days after the Brazilian regulator okayed the Max. The three biggest US carriers, namely American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, FlyDubai, WestJet, Air Canada, SCAT, Icelandair, Alaska Airlines and Smartwings are some of the carriers that have re-introduced the Max.

A Boeing 737 Max of American Airlines. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Nathan Coats

In early December, Irish carrier Ryanair placed orders for 75 new Max-8200 aircraft. This special variant of the Max is designed to seat up to 200 passengers and comes with an extra set of emergency exits. Vietnam's VietJet is also expected to take delivery of the Max-8200, according to a Siimpleflying report. 

China, which was the first country to ban the B737 Max after the twin crashes, has, however, said that it would conduct flight tests of the Max in a planned and step-by-step manner once its major safety concerns are properly addressed, Reuters reported. China is a crucial market for the B737 Max with 13 airlines operating 96 such planes at the time of the grounding,  according to Flightglobal. 

The return of the Max, however, hit an air pocket as it were on April 9, when a number of the airlines that had brought back the aircraft were forced to ground many of these planes after a new technical problem was reported by Boeing. According to the FAA, the issue "could affect the operation of a backup power control unit". About 16 airlines and 100 B737 Max aircraft were affected. While carriers like American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines were hit, FlyDubai escaped unscathed.    

In the Indian context, SpiceJet, the largest Max operator had hoped to bring the aircraft back from the first quarter of 2021, but the delay may not necessarily be that bad for the airline, according to a Moneycontrol article. 

Also read: 'For SpiceJet, Boeing B737 Max's ungrounding makes no difference yet'

This is because the carrier is compensated by Boeing for the period of time that the Max stays banned. So far SpiceJet has adjusted claims of over Rs 1,000 crore from Boeing on its books. The fourth-quarter results are expected to show an increase in SpiceJet's claims from Boeing. Moreover, air traffic in India is yet to recover to pre-Covid levels. In fact, the steady recovery was dented by the massive surge in Covid-19 cases that the country has been seeing since February this year, and bookings are already down by at least 15% and passenger loads on aircraft have fallen below 60% on many routes. Under such circumstances, SpiceJet need not press all its planes into service. 

An Air China B737 Max. China is the biggest market for this aircraft model. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/N509FZ

The Max is a re-engined and fuel-efficient version of an aircraft that was first flown in the 1960s and rivals Airbus's A320 Neo as a workhorse for airlines around the world. Nearly 400 B737 Max planes were in operation worldwide when they were grounded.

The Max is based on earlier 737 designs and boasts of more efficient CFM International LEAP-1B engines, aerodynamic changes, including its distinctive split-tip winglets and airframe modifications.

The Max was a cash cow for Boeing before the Lion Air crash in October 2018, and the grounding was a body blow for the plane making giant. Its return is important for Boeing not only to earn back its lost repute but help it rebound after a crippling coronavirus crisis. It is also important to contend with rival Airbus, which is well-established in the lucrative narrow-body, single-aisle market with its A320, A320 Neo and A321 Neo planes. 

Boeing is also battling a loss of face over quality lapses and manufacturing flaws in its 787 Dreamliner aircraft, KC-46 aerial tanker and Starliner spacecraft. Boeing had also fired and sued a subcontractor in relation to turning two B747 jumbo jets into the next fleet of Air Force One for carrying US presidents.