India’s aviation safety regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), late Tuesday night decided to ground Boeing 737 MAX aircraft with immediate effect until appropriate modifications and safety measures are undertaken to ensure their safe operations.
The DGCA’s decision came shortly after the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) announced suspension of flight operations of Boeing’s flagship narrowbody aircraft across Europe. A senior DGCA official had earlier told The Indian Express that it would take inputs from other regulatory authorities and airlines before deciding the further course of action.
“Directed Secy (Civil Aviation Secretary) to hold an emergency meeting with all airlines to prepare a contingency plan to avoid inconvenience to passengers. While passenger safety is a zero tolerance issue, efforts are already on to minimise the impact on passenger movement as their convenience is important,” Minister of Civil Aviation Suresh Prabhu said in a tweet.
In India, SpiceJet and Jet Airways operate the aircraft. While Jet’s all five 737 MAXs are grounded due to the airline’s financial woes, SpiceJet grounded 12 planes in its fleet following the DGCA directive.
On Tuesday, regulatory authorities of a score of countries including the UK, France, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Malaysia, Oman among others announced grounding of the 737 MAX in light of the second fatal accident involving the aircraft in less than five months.
An Ethiopian Airlines-operated 737 MAX crashed on Sunday shortly after take-off from Addis Ababa killing all 157 on board. In October last year, another 737 MAX operated by Lion Air went down into the Java Sea minutes after taking off.
In a statement, Boeing said that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was “not mandating any further action at this time” and based on the information available, the aircraft maker did not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators.
The FAA on Monday said the changes will “provide reduced reliance on procedures associated with required pilot memory items.” The FAA also said Boeing will “update training requirements and flight crew manuals to go with the design change” to an automated protection system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS.
However, the EASA in a statement noted: “As a precautionary measure, EASA has published today an Airworthiness Directive…suspending all flight operations of all Boeing Model 737-8 MAX and 737-9 MAX aeroplanes in Europe. In addition EASA has published a Safety Directive…suspending all commercial flights performed by third-country operators into, within or out of the EU of the above mentioned models”.
Said the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA): “…As we do not currently have sufficient information from the flight data recorder we have, as a precautionary measure, issued instructions to stop any commercial passenger flights from any operators arriving, departing or overflying UK airspace”.
Apart from regulators, some airlines, too, have individually decided to ground their brand new planes. These include Norwegian Air , Royal Air Maroc, Mongolian Airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas and Aeromexico.
In a statement early Tuesday prior to the DGCA decision, SpiceJet had said: “The Boeing 737 MAX is a highly sophisticated aircraft. It has flown hundreds of thousands of hours globally and some of the world’s largest airlines are flying this aircraft. We are actively engaged with both Boeing and the DGCA and will continue to put safety first, as always. We have already implemented all additional precautionary measures as directed by the DGCA yesterday”. SpiceJet has a deal with Boeing for up to 205 aircraft, including at least 155 737 MAX 8 planes. Boeing has delivered about 350 of this model to airlines across the world.
On Monday, the DGCA had issued additional safety instructions for operations of these aircraft by Indian carriers. Engineers and maintenance personnel looking after the aircraft were instructed to factor in additional checks, particularly those pertaining to the jet’s autopilot and stall management systems.
The airlines were told to ensure that crew members operating the 737 MAX have undergone training as per updated guidelines issued by DGCA on December 3 following the Lion Air accident. It also said that the pilot commanding the aircraft should have at least 1,000 hours of flying experience on the Boeing 737 NG aircraft type, and the co-pilot at least 500 hours.
The last time India announced a blanket grounding of aircraft was in 2013 when regulators followed FAA directive to bring Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft out of service due to heating problems with the plane’s lithium ion batteries that had the potential to catch fire.