Tuesday 17 September 2019

Fear of flying: can Boeing bounce back?

After two fatal crashes, the company is scrambling to convince the aviation industry and the public its planes are safe to fly in. It'll be a long haul, writes John Meagher

Flight risk: All 371 737 Max planes have been grounded until they attain a new safety certification
Flight risk: All 371 737 Max planes have been grounded until they attain a new safety certification
John Meagher

John Meagher

What a difference a month makes. Back in February, Boeing was leading the tributes to its 747 airliner - long dubbed the 'Jumbo Jet' - on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. The world's biggest commercial aircraft manufacturer could proudly boast that it had forever changed the course of aviation.

But just four weeks later, Boeing was staring catastrophe in the face. An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed killing all 157 on board - including Clare man Michael Ryan. It was a brand new 737 Max 8 plane and it soon transpired that the same software glitch that had downed another of Boeing's new 737s in Indonesia just months previously, in October, had been responsible for this crash too.

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The 737 Max was announced in 2011 and was the most successful passenger plane in history when orders are taken into account. Ryanair - the biggest Boeing customer outside of the US - placed an order for 135 of them. The first batch were due to arrive last month.

But right now, all 371 737 Max aircraft that were in use have been grounded and Boeing is scrambling to fix the fatal software glitch. In both cases, faulty information from a sensor caused anti-stall automation to kick in when it wasn't needed and push the plane's nose down. Black box recordings showed that pilots had tried to counter the aircraft's actions, but were unable to avoid crashing.

"We are making steady progress towards certification," Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said this week, but few doubt the scale of the challenge the manufacturer faces to convince the public that the latest iteration of a plane first introduced in 1967 is safe to fly.

President Trump weighed in on the crisis with a tweet: "If I were Boeing, I would fix the Boeing 737 Max, add some additional great features and rebrand the plane with a new name. No product has suffered like this one." Quite what Muilenburg and other airline chiefs thought of Trump's contribution is anyone's guess: in the wake of his tweet, it was pointed out that his short-lived airline, Trump Shuttle, had been an abject failure.

Travel industry expert Eoghan Corry says Boeing's plight will have significant repercussions for Ireland. "Boeing's biggest customers in Europe are all Irish," he says. "Ryanair relies on Boeing entirely for its fleet and have a large number of orders placed. And there are significant orders from each of the three big aircraft leasing firms based in Ireland. And this country is a huge player when it comes to aviation leasing - we account for a third of all the planes in the sky."

Corry says Boeing faces a "huge, existential challenge" and one largely of its own making. "The 737 is the workhorse of the sky," he says, "particularly in America. But it may have been a victim of its own success. When the Boeing 737 went through its 600, 700 and 800 [iterations], they were all hugely successful. But when it came to updating the 800, they were faced with a quandary - if they made it too complicated, they risked having to add extra terms and conditions to the sale just at a time they were coming under increased pressure from Airbus, and they risked having to say to airlines, 'We need your pilots to go into simulators to retrain' - a really big cost for the airlines."

He says Boeing had been under pressure to improve the fuel efficiency of their planes following the success of the rival Airbus 320 Neo. "They had to convince buyers that they were effectively building a better plane, but one that would not require additional training. And nobody, Ryanair included, wants to have to be retraining all their pilots."

Gerry Byrne, an aviation-specialist journalist, says the scale of the problem Boeing faces should not be underestimated.

"It's been disastrous for Boeing and what makes it even more of a disaster is it's the second time it's happened in just a few years," he says. "The first time was the Boeing 787, the Dreamliner, which went on fire. Nobody was killed then, but two or three aircraft did go on fire." He says the fact that 346 people lost their lives in two separate crashes caused by the same issue has magnified the challenge for Boeing when it comes to restoring confidence among the general public.

Screwed up

"The 737 Max planes were in the planning for quite some time," he says. "They weren't planned and produced any quicker than earlier 737s. What I would say is that the cosy relationship with the US regulator [Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)] is a major problem. The regulator should be making sure that the aircraft is safe to fly, but delegated this responsibility to Boeing. It basically told Boeing, 'Look, go ahead - you look after this, we trust you'. And they got it wrong. They really screwed up."

Byrne says that cosy relationship has been "going on for years" and his 2002 book Flight 427: Anatomy of an Air Disaster looked forensically at "the damage that relationship between Boeing and the FAA was doing".

He believes Boeing will fix the software issue and estimates that the planes that have already been sold will be "in the air within two months", but he believes they may have difficulty in convincing those who have placed orders to follow through on them.

Ryanair did not respond to queries by the time of going to press, but Corry believes Europe's largest airline will be well-placed to make demands of Boeing.

"Nobody really knows what's going on in Michael O'Leary's head," he says, "but having watched him for many years, I think what they'll do is they'll go back to Boeing and they'll say, 'The 737 Max is toxic and our customers won't fly in it, but we've got an order for 135 of them and that's enough for you to keep the production line of the [predecessor] 737 800 going for a couple more years and we'll buy those aircraft off you instead'. And then they'll look for a 25pc discount."

Meanwhile, some believe airfares will increase due to the uncertainty around the 737 Max, especially in the US, and some airlines based there have already issued profit warnings.

But Goodbody Stockbrokers analyst Mark Simpson believes Ryanair will not suffer any fallout from the 737 Max grounding this year, as it has plenty of aircraft in reserve. "There is no impact this coming year as Ryanair will utilise its reserve capacity over the summer - around 11 planes - and possible delay lease returns," he said last month. "Even if the grounding lasted into the winter, Ryanair then has around 60 planes laid up over the low winter season, so would have plenty of cover."

Boeing may have had to combat a lot of negative news this week, but the company remains bullish about its long-term future. On Wednesday, it released new details about its forthcoming wide-body, long-distance aircraft, the 777X.

The manufacturer is promising sculpted side walls, a cabin that's four inches wider than its predecessor, pressurisation that alleviates jet lag, and with the bonus of every passenger being able to see out the window.

But the firm will be under greater pressure than ever to assure customers that the 777X - which will begin flight testing later this year and is expected to be in production in 2020 - is safe.

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