Go to the max in ensuring air safety

Editorial | Mary Ma 13 Mar 2019

Air fares are the primary concern for most travelers when booking a flight. Now they're also asking what type of aircraft they would be flying on.

If it's a Boeing 737 Max 8, I believe many would now change their travel plans in wake of the crash of two 737 Max 8 planes in the space of less than six months.

Before us is a state of confusion made worse by the different reactions of aviation authorities to the double tragedies.

A total of 157 people - including United Nations employee Victor Tsang Shing-ngai from Hong Kong - aboard the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi died after their Max 8 aircraft crashed shortly after take-off on Sunday.

In October, a Max 8 operated by Lion Air crashed in Indonesia, killing 189 people. That plane reportedly lost altitude soon after taking off.

The two incidents add up to one big cause for alarm.

First, both Max 8s were newly delivered by Boeing. Second, both crashed not long after takeoff.

So far since the latest accident, civil aviation authorities in China and Indonesia have grounded their Max 8s, with Singapore and Australia following suit. Other airlines have also voluntarily stopped flying the Max.

Their concerns are valid. There's clearly some problem and nobody is able to say what it is. So as a precaution, it makes perfect sense to ground the new aircraft until the mystery is solved.

There's speculation that in moving swiftly to suspend the US-made aircraft - Boeing's best-selling aircraft ever - China is exercising its muscle as the aviation giant's biggest customer, to leverage on the accident to press the Americans in order to tilt the Sino-US trade negotiations to its side.

The United States would undoubtedly feel the pressure. But I doubt it was the cause of the Chinese ban since other aviation authorities have also taken similar measures. It's hardly in the public interest to politicize a safety matter.

The Americans are taking a risk by keeping the Max planes in the air despite fears expressed by some passengers and crew members. Since the Lion Air crash, Boeing has reportedly been working to enhance the Max's flight control software.

After the second crash, the US Federal Aviation Administration warned Boeing to complete that enhancement no later than April.

What does the FAA statement mean? The enhancement isn't ready. So, the current status is like, while the cause or causes of the two crashes haven't been established, neither has a remedial enhancement been implemented yet.

When the jet manufacturer stated that "for the past several months, and in the aftermath of the Lion Air flight 610, Boeing has been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 738 Max 8, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer" to assure the aviation market in wake of Sunday's accident, it was no more than a cheap public relations exercise that offered no additional information.

Boeing shares plunged 13 percent in early trading before recovering some of the loss later. Company executives fear the stock will crash like the Max 8 should they follow suit to ground their best-seller.

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