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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Explained: Why India has allowed Boeing 737 Max planes to fly again

The DGCA has permitted the commercial operations of Boeing 737 Max planes in India. Why was the aircraft banned in March 2019, and what has happened since then? Which airlines operate the plane?

Written by Pranav Mukul , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 29, 2021 10:02:17 pm
A Boeing 737 MAX airplane lands after a test flight at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, U.S. June 29, 2020. (Reuters Photo: Karen Ducey, File)

Indian aviation safety regulator DGCA has permitted the commercial operations of Boeing 737 Max planes in the country after it was banned in March 2019 following two deadly crashes of the aircraft model that together killed 346 people.

Why was the aircraft banned from flying?

In October 2018, the 737 Max — the newest member of Boeing’s 737 narrow-body family — crashed in the Java Sea shortly after takeoff from Jakarta. Later, in March 2019, another aircraft of the same model crashed in Ethiopia. Both these accidents killed a total of 346 people. Following the second crash, aviation authorities globally decided to ground the plane pending an investigation into the cause behind the crashes.

At the time, several airlines including large carriers like United, American, Southwest, Air Canada, in addition to Indian carrier SpiceJet, were operating the 737 Max planes in their fleets. China was the first country to ground the plane and others soon followed suit. After India’s clearance to fly, China now remains the only major market to have still not allowed the plane to fly.

What happened after the grounding?

During the investigation, it was discovered that the main cause of the accidents was a design flaw in the most modern jetliner. The latest Boeing 737 model is equipped with a manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), which is responsible for pushing the aircraft’s nose down when it senses a high angle of attack that may lead to an aircraft stall. If an aircraft’s nose is too high, the plane loses speed and is likely to enter a stall — a state in which it loses flight and can fall from the sky like a stone. The MCAS was designed to prevent such an eventuality.

In case of the two crashes, the MCAS falsely misread the plane’s angle of attack during the ascent and forced the nose down leading to the crash. However, it was not just a technical flaw that caused the accidents. During the course of the investigation, several shortcomings were also found out with the processes laid down by Boeing as well as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

How has the un-grounding taken place?

Once the investigation pointed out all the deficiencies, corrective measures were introduced, including rectifying the MCAS by Boeing and setting up of simulators and training centres to train pilots about the MCAS. In November 2020, the FAA lifted the restrictions on Boeing 737 Max, and several other jurisdictions including Japan, Europe, the UK, Canada, Brazil, the UAE, Australia approved the aircraft’s return to flight following technical modifications and additional pilot training. From December 2020 onwards, airlines started operating commercial flights on the plane.

The Indian DGCA said the aircraft can return to operations “only upon satisfaction of applicable requirements for return to service”. Explaining the decision, the regulator said that 17 regulators worldwide have permitted operation of Boeing 737 Max planes, and 34 airlines with 345 planes of this model were operating currently having operated over 2.89 lakh cumulative hours since the ungrounding from December 9 2020, “with no untoward reporting”.

A SpiceJet Boeing 737-800 passenger plane moves on the runway at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel international airport in Ahmedabad, January 8, 2014. (Reuters Photo: Amit Dave)

Which airlines operate the plane?

In India, SpiceJet is the only airline as of date with the aircraft model in the fleet. Jet Airways, which has been grounded due to financial crunch, also operated this plane. In addition, the upcoming domestic airline, Akasa, is expected to launch with a fleet of Boeing 737 Max. In the international space, airlines such as Oman Air and FlyDubai used to operate the aircraft on the Indian routes prior to the ban.

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