The Boeing 737 Max fleet has been grounded. Photo: Courtesy of Boeing

The boom in air travel over the past 30 years has resulted in a critical shift in the way commercial aircraft are built and the way airlines are managed. This is particularly true for Asia, with the rise in demand in China, India, Indochina and the Middle East, compounded further by the low-cost mentality of budget airlines.

The two recent crashes of Boeing 737 Max 8 airliners operated by Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines had many similarities, such as how both aircraft encountered exceptionally high engine power and speed while ascending. As more investigations and new voice data come to light, concern should be shifted to a more pressing issue. The current business model of many of these profit-centered airlines and their manufacturers is not sustainable in terms of air safety.

The Boeing 737 is definitely a time-tested model, having been in service for more than 51 years. The Max 8 has two critical design changes that if taken in fresh perspective, would render the fourth version of the Boeing 737 a radically new aircraft type. That means that pilots and engineers ought to be subject to a more significant training and certification program before being approved for this type of plane.

The Max 8 is powered by much more powerful engines than earlier versions and the old airframe structure of the Boeing 737 could not cater to the new stress load and the air turbulence created. Therefore, the engines had to be shifted forward, thus changing the angle of attack (AOA) and also the overall aerodynamics of the 737.

The second major change is the anti-stalling feature of its Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) to prevent the nose of the plane from rising up too steeply beyond its critical AOA. When this protection system kicks in, the automated control system pushes the nose of the plane down. Aircraft cannot afford to stall in midair as gravity would ensure that they would drop down to the ground like a tin can.

One of the reasons many airlines acquire the 737 Max 8 is the need to streamline and manage their operating costs. It is much easier to acquire, manage and operate a fleet of Boeing 737s than to have a wide range of aircraft from different manufacturers or a different product range. In itself, this is a very sound business proposition.

Aircraft cannot afford to stall in midair as gravity would ensure that they would drop down to the ground like a tin can

As such, many of the type-certified pilots that are currently flying the 737 Max 8 are not comprehensively trained to manage the peculiar scenarios created by these critical changes. When the aircraft encounter such a scenario immediately after takeoff, the pilots have to deal with these two critical challenges while trying to differentiate from what they had always been trained to do with the older 737 models. Simulator training, however comprehensive, cannot adequately simulate the real-life situation faced by pilots.

When pilots are operating in such an extremely stressful environment, their blood pressures are elevated. Their thinking processes are also adversely affected. To make matters worse, how are they expected to understand the complex algorithms of the MCAS system and the various compensations that are at play? Every correction by the pilots to pull up the nose will be countered and corrected by the MCAS almost instantly. At some point, the MCAS will have to over-compensate, and that may be where the pilots completely lose control.

The current worldwide grounding of the 737 Max 8 has put many of the aviation-safety organizations such as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) under public scrutiny. Why did they, the airlines and Boeing have to wait for two deadly crashes to take place before they took the initiative to ground all 350 Max 8s that were in operation?

Between the two crashes, Boeing carried out one software upgrade to try to resolve this peculiar design defect, but did not retrain pilots to deal adequately with how the MCAS actually compensates. Many more questions will be asked of Boeing, the IATA, global regulators and pilot unions across the world.

Growing consumer demand for cheaper and faster air travel has also contributed greatly to the overall decline in aviation safety as the rush to train pilots and engineers to meet the demand may have been compromised by over-reliance on simulator training. Even national carriers that took pride in safety are being hard-pressed to cut prices and operating costs to match the challenges of the low-cost carriers. In such a hostile price war, something will give, and they may have just traded away aviation safety without anticipating the cost of such a safety trade-off – the loss of 346 lives.

The IATA and global regulators will have to start exerting their authority and help forge a fairer and safer practice framework for the industry, and restore the trust of the public in air travel. Airports too ought to curb their exorbitant airport charges and play their part, as their ground-handling costs have a major impact on the overall profitability of airlines. A collective failure requires collective action to correct the underlying problems, and the pursuit of profit cannot be placed ahead of safety.

There is a need for the key stakeholders to re-examine the decline in aviation safety. The need to curb the unrestrained profit-over-safety mentality in the aviation industry will be a pressing challenge that needs to be addressed seriously. Collectively, these stakeholders have to act collectively and ethically in forging a fairer and safer business environment for the industry. Public safety matters and cannot be taken for granted.

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