The fallout from the mid-air blowout of a panel on an Alaska Airlines flight last week adds to the already “checkered history” for Boeing’s MAX jets, experts say, and puts the company’s once-sterling commercial aircraft reputation further at risk.
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun admitted earlier this week that the Virginia-based company made a mistake after an Alaska Airlines flight on Jan. 5 had a door plug blowout shortly after take-off.
The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all 737 MAX 9 aircraft in the United States for inspection after the incident, and is investigating Boeing’s compliance with FAA standards.
The National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S. is investigating the cause of the blowout.
Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, says it’s not just the Alaska Airlines incident prompting concerns about Boeing’s aircraft.
“The 737 MAX has a very checkered history and really has damaged Boeing’s reputation,” he says. “That has shaken trust in the MAX airplane again … This casts more doubt on that airplane specifically and Boeing more broadly.”
The FAA grounded Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 line after two deadly crashes of a Lion Air flight in October 2018 and an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March 2019.
The MAX 8 line was grounded by the FAA for 20 months and longer in some jurisdictions such as China, which only lifted its ban last year. Transport Canada granted approval for airlines to fly the MAX 8 jets again in Jan. 2021, two months after they received FAA sign-off.
Harteveldt says that what especially harmed Boeing’s reputation in those incidents was that investigations found the company had concealed details about a new flight stabilization software that activated in both crashes.
As bad as Boeing came off in the MAX 8 groundings, the FAA “had a hand to play” too, Harteveldt says. The regulator at the time had allowed Boeing to self-certify details in the 737 MAX line, a freedom he says the FAA has since drawn back.
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After the MAX 8 groundings, Harteveldt says both Boeing and FAA have overhauled how they approach airplane safety and certification.
“Boeing realized that they messed up. The FAA also realized that they were a part of the problem. And there have been legitimate changes at both organizations,” he says.
In the wake of the Alaska Airlines blowout, the FAA has again announced it will ramp up oversight of Boeing’s MAX 9 manufacturing processes, including auditing its suppliers.
John Gradek, aviation management professor at McGill University, says the response to the Alaska Airlines incident shows how much has changed since the MAX 8 groundings.
While the FAA waited months after the Lion Air incident until another fatal crash occurred to address the MAX 8s, the regulator took less than 24 hours to issue a ground order in the latest case, he notes.
“The regulators are saying, ‘We will err on the side of being extremely cautious,’” Gradek tells Global News. “That to me is a lesson learned and a behaviour that I think instills a lot more confidence in the traveling public, that the regulators and the oversight of aviation will now take action and take action quickly.”
But a rapid response from the regulator might not be enough reassurance for travellers with a flight booked on a Boeing jet, Harteveldt says.
“There are a lot of people who are afraid of Boeing aircraft at this time, and you don’t really have much of a choice as a traveller,” he says.
The global aircraft market is largely a duopoly between Airbus and Boeing – literally a choice between A or B, Harteveldt says.
That’s a change from 50 years ago when there were a multitude of commercial aircraft manufacturers, offering choices for airlines and passengers.
After the MAX 8 groundings, some airlines did put in orders for Airbus jets rather than Boeing, Harteveldt says. But Airbus’ production capacity is already running at “full tilt” today, he says, meaning any airline who wants to get out of the Boeing business will likely have to wait two years or more for new jets.
Boeing could try to restore public confidence in its planes by going back to its marketing materials from the 60s and 70s, Harteveldt argues, when it sought to woo customers about the experience of flying in one of its jets. While customers aren’t the ones placing orders for the jets, he says airlines will be less likely to buy a fleet of Boeing planes if they don’t believe their passengers will buy a seat on them.
With roughly half of all flights operating a Boeing aircraft these days, Gradek says it would be tricky, but not impossible, to plan a flight itinerary avoiding the company’s planes.
“It’ll make life more difficult, it’ll restrict your choices,” he says.
While Boeing’s commercial aircraft had a stellar safety reputation before the MAX line, Gradek says the company may have lost a step in recent years.
Boeing laid off some 30,000 people when COVID-19 pandemic devastated the global travel industry. When they did so, “a lot of expertise went out the door,” Gradek says. The company has since turned to outsourcing to fill in some of those gaps, he adds, including leaning on Spirit Aerosystems to assemble the fuselage on its MAX line. Spirit says it is cooperating with the NTSB investigation.
Gradek says Boeing ought to return to the drawing board when it comes to its reliance on the 737 line, a decades-old design it has chosen to revamp rather than come up with a novel aircraft for the modern market.
“I think the time has come for Boeing to really rethink its design and its philosophy on commercial aviation, and to make sure that they really look at putting together an airplane that is one, competitive, but also environmentally and operationally much friendlier,” he says.
Harteveldt agrees with Gradek that Boeing is not the innovator it once was in commercial aviation since merging with McDonnell Douglas in 1997 and deepening its push into the defence and aerospace industry.
“It has no vision. It doesn’t have the innovation that it once did,” he says of Boeing’s commercial aircraft business.
Boeing’s stock price is down more than 12 per cent over the past week. But the lasting impact from the Alaska Airlines blowout remains to be seen, Harteveldt argues, pending the outcome of the FAA and NTSB investigations into what exactly went wrong in that incident.
Since that time, United Airlines and Alaska Airlines have both found instances of other grounded MAX 9 aircraft where bolts were either loose or missing from the key panel lost in the Jan. 5 incident. Once the other inspections of grounded MAX 9 aircraft are complete, Boeing and the wider travel industry will have a better sense of how pervasive these problems were, Harteveldt says.
“If it is a relative handful, that’s one thing. If this is found to be truly systemic, that’s troubling.”