Boeing 737 MAX: Everything you need to know and what it means for passengers

Simon Calder, Cathy Adams
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Boeing 737 Max: Plane maker had too much influence on safety checks, say FAA employees

The entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX jets has been grounded, following the US’s decision yesterday to ban the aircraft from US airspace.

There were 371 jets in operation.

Here is everything you need to know about how the widespread grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX jets will affect passengers.

What is the Boeing 737 MAX?

The Boeing 737 MAX fleet is the latest iteration of the highly successful 737 line of aircraft. The MAX comes in several variants: 7, 8, 9 and 10.

In addition, there is a specific Ryanair sub-variant of the MAX 8, with an extra emergency exit and eight additional seats, known as the 200. None of these have yet entered service; the airline is due to deploy them from 14 May 2019, though this of course depends on whether the flight ban for the entire MAX range is lifted.

The 737 is a narrow-body jet that has typically been deployed on short- to medium-range journeys. But the increased range and reduced fuel burn of the MAX series means it has also proved successful across the Atlantic, notably with Norwegian from Belfast and Edinburgh to the US.

The MAX 8 variant, which was the model involved in both the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes, usually seats 189 passengers.

At the airport, the easiest way to spot a 737 MAX is by the aircraft’s distinctive wingtips – with “fins” that protrude down as well as up.

Why are there concerns over this aircraft?

On 10 March 2019, all 157 passengers and crew aboard an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 died when it crashed shortly after take-off from Addis Ababa on a routine flight to Nairobi.

It was the second fatal accident involving what is a very modern aircraft. Fluctuations in the vertical speed of the aircraft show some similarities with the performance of a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 which crashed shortly after take-off from Jakarta airport in October 2018, with the loss of 189 lives.

In total, 346 passengers have died onboard Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft.

Concern has centred on some software installed to protect against a stall. Evidence from the Indonesian crash implicates this safety measure in the fatal accident.

Reports have since emerged of several pilots raising concerns over the aircraft. Pilots on at least two US flights reported autopilot systems in use on the 737 MAX 8 seemed to cause their planes to tilt downwards and lose altitude suddenly.

The pilot reports were filed last year in a database compiled by Nasa. They are voluntary safety reports and do not publicly reveal the names of pilots, the airlines or the location of the incidents.

Why are countries banning this aircraft?

America’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the last to move to ban the jets in its airspace, said that it made the decision “as a result of the data gathering process and new evidence collected at the site”, as well as “newly refined satellite data”.

The UK aviation watchdog, the Civil Aviation Authority, said: “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 operator arriving, departing or overflying UK airspace.”

Other countries have called the move a “precautionary measure” until they know more about the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

Boeing continues to say that it has “full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX” aircraft, but has grounded them “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety”.

Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing, said: “We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution. Safety is a core value at Boeing for as long as we have been building airplanes; and it always will be. There is no greater priority for our company and our industry.

“We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”

What does it mean for passengers with bookings on the aircraft?

Around 200,000 travellers a day worldwide were booked to fly on Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, but at this stage not all of them will have their journeys disrupted.

Passengers in North America will be the most affected, given that the three biggest operators of the jets are Southwest, American Airlines and Air Canada. Together, the three carriers operate 72 Boeing 737 MAXs, according to data from Cirium, an airline data firm.

“The airlines’ relative fleet exposure to the Max is small,” says Flight Global.

“Given that the world fleet of 737 MAX 8 and 737 MAX 9 airplanes is less than 400 units, the wider global impact will largely be minimal – especially when bigger network carriers, such as those in the USA will have enough capacity in their armoury to pick up any slack,” said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research.

In the UK, the two biggest operators of the Boeing 737 MAX are Norwegian and Tui Airways, with 18 and five jets respectively.

Airlines will seek to minimise disruption by sub-chartering capacity, using larger aircraft or keeping older planes flying beyond their intended replacement date.

How long will the grounding last?

That will depend on the outcome of the investigation of the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The black box data recorder has been recovered and sent to France for analysis.

A statement by Ethiopian Airlines yesterday said: “An Ethiopian delegation led by Accident Investigation Bureau has flown the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder to Paris, France for investigation.”

The consensus in the aviation industry is that grounding is likely to be measured in months rather than weeks – possibly May/June.

Has this happened to an aircraft before?

Yes, most notably with the DC-10 in 1989.

“The DC-10’s reputation was already controversial after a 1974 crash in Paris which killed 346 people, the worst in the world at the time, due to a faulty cargo door locking mechanism which had been identified but not fixed,” says Charles Kennedy, who is writing a definitive guide to the tri-jet.

“When American Airlines 191 crashed inverted just seconds after take-off from Chicago, the public abandoned the DC-10 in droves and the FAA had no choice but to act, grounding the plane and banning foreign carriers from flying DC-10s on international routes. Freddie Laker’s popular Skytrain service was particularly badly affected.

“In fact the accident was something of a unique case, as the engine pylon that failed had been damaged by non-standard maintenance, but the chain of events that followed -- loss of hydraulic pressure causing high lift devices on the damaged wing to retract, and an electrical failure that meant the pilots weren’t aware of their plight -- showed the DC-10 in a poor light, and improvements had to be made.

“The accident came as part of the DC-10’s own annus horribilis, with Western Airlines 2605 crashing on landing in Mexico City on October 31 with the loss of 73 lives, and Air New Zealand’s Antarctic sightseeing flight 901 crashing into Mount Erebus with the loss of all 257 aboard.

“Neither were related to the aircraft type but nonetheless the death toll for the year stood at 599 plus three on the ground, and the fortunes of the DC-10, which was starting to regain its reputation after the Paris catastrophe, were in tatters, never to recover.”

What are my rights if my flight is delayed or cancelled?

In the UK, European air passengers’ rights rules will apply. There is no compensation payable, because this grounding will count as a “hidden manufacturing defect”. But airlines must provide alternative flights and, if a wait is involved, source hotels and provide meals for disrupted passengers.