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The Return of Boeing 737 MAX

The announcement by Director-General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Captain Musa Nuhu, that Boeing 737 Max can resume operations in Nigeria’s Airspace must have rattled many regular flyers. The approval, Captain Nuhu announced,  took effect from February 12, 2021.

Recall that in October 2018, a brand new Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX 8 went down over the Java Sea, killing 189 people.

In less than five months, another crash of Boeing 737 MAX in March 2019, an Ethiopian airline, also claimed the lives of another 157 people including two Nigerians. The Ministry of Aviation and NCAA had to move swiftly to stop the operations of all Boeing 737 Max series aircraft operating within the Nigerian airspace.

Now, in less than two years, Boeing MAX is bouncing back into Nigeria’s commercial airspace. This is bolstered by a joint review of the Boeing 737 MAX safety system by the International Aviation Authorities which include the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Transport Canada (TC) and the Singapore Civil Aviation Authority and other reputable aviation bodies.

The decision was informed by the United States Federal Aviation Administrations (FAA) continued operational safety activities related to returning the Boeing Models 737-8 and 737-9 (737 MAX) aircraft to the air. The FAA and EASA had equally examined and test-flown the changes Boeing has done on the 737 MAX series to make it safe to fly again.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued its first airworthiness certificate for the Boeing 737 MAX on November 18, lifting the 20-month-old grounding order on the MAX  series. However, the lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the formal  resumption of flights. This has seen Nigeria join a few other countries in the world to lift the ban on all Boeing 737 MAX series. Many other countries are still dragging their feet on this approval. They would prefer to err on the side of caution.

The Boeing 737 was the world’s most popular airliner in the aviation market until the two nasty incidents. The Boeing 737 Max has a maximum cruise speed of 839 km/h (521 mph) and a flight range up to 6, 510 km (4,045 mi).

It is the fourth generation of Boeing 737 which is a narrow-body airliner and had a very enviable safety record until the two fatal crashes. The two crashes also brought about the global ban on the Boeing 737 MAX.

The crash of Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29, 2018 was the highest casualty in a 737 crash.

Following the second crash, the Boeing 737 Max was globally considered dangerous. The problem with the 737 MAX according to experts was a flight control smoothing system. They noted that the Maneuvering Characteristic Augmentation Systems (MCAS) had an uncharacteristically sloppy design, making it quite dangerous.

They contend that if Boeing had made the installation of the faulty AoA reading alert software mandatory, the crew of flight 610 would have known that the MCAS was acting delinquently on faulty AoA readings. Equally, if Boeing had trained pilots of MAX-8 series on the new device, the crash would have been averted.

The same circumstances are considered to have been responsible for the Ethiopian Airline crash of flight 302.

Pundits equally noted that it wasn’t just about the base aircraft being dangerous. It was about Boeing cutting corners in its rush to get the MAX into the market without giving the necessary care and efforts needed when adding a smoothing function to a flight control system of this type of aircraft.

This is because safety alert software had now become mandatory in the airline industry. The installation of a warning alert device in the popular airliner was however declared optional and an extra cost.

In the same way, analysts noted that the inadequate analysis of the design of the system and its safety made it equally dangerous and capable of overwhelming even highly experienced flight crews.

There are however some concerns lately, especially when another Boeing 737 Max Aircraft recently experienced engine problems. One engine caught fire and fell off and the plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Orlando, Florida.

A former senior manager at Boeing’s 737 plants in Seattle, Ed Pierson, has already raised concerns over the safety of the new 737 Max. He said that further investigations of electrical connections and production quality problems at the 737 factory is badly needed.

Although regulators in the US and Europe insist their reviews have been thorough, and that the 737 Max was now safe, Mr Pierson noted that they must have ignored factors he believes played a direct role in the last two accidents. Many are not sure if Pierson’s comments are not deliberate mischief from a disgruntled former staff.  Boeing has already dismissed the claims as unfounded.

FAA is now asking MAX manufacturers to incorporate certain Airplane Flight Manual flight crew operating procedures and conduct an angle of attack sensor system test.

They are also required to organize special pilot training for the 737 Max and Safety Alert for Operators incorporated in FAA’s Boeing 737 Flight Standardisation Board Report, especially revision 17 that will abate the problems that necessitated the two popular crashes.

According to AeroTine Hub, Boeing 737 MAX pilots will have to cover requirements for MCAS, Autopilot Flight Director System (AFDS), peculiarities, and additional Special Emphasis Areas during both ground and flight training.

Airlines have confirmed that the training consists of the ground and flight time and takes around five hours in total: 90-120 minute of computer-based training (CBT), two hours in a Boeing 737 MAX Level C or D FFS, and a one-hour debriefing session.

Since the US lifted the ban following the 20-month grounding, the 737 Max has recorded several safety groundings.

America began with a single daily MAX flight from Miami to New York’s LaGuardia airport. Nigeria and few other countries of the world that have joined in lifting the ban on Boeing are expected to follow suit with initial limited MAX flights.

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Many industry players had anticipated the re-certification of Boeing 737 Max, especially those who are dependent on it and its future. According to EASA’s CEO, Patrick Kye, there is “every confidence that the aircraft is safe, which is the precondition for getting the approval. But aviation experts will continue to monitor 737 MAX operations closely as the aircraft resumes services”.

From the anxiety among flyers on the return of the Boeing 737 MAX, it would be reasonable if air travellers could get to know when booking a flight into any Boeing 737 MAX series. Passengers should have a right of choice, and the Nigerian Aviation Authorities should pursue this line.

Peters Abodunrin

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