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'If It's Boeing, I'm Not Going': Questions Galore As DGCA Puts Boeing 737 Fleets Under Enhanced Surveillance

A Boeing 737-800 plane of China Eastern Airlines crashed into a mountain, killing more than 130 people on board

'If It's Boeing, I'm Not Going': Questions Galore As DGCA Puts Boeing 737 Fleets Under Enhanced Surveillance
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If it ain't Boeing, I ain't going, the popular tagline appears just as a documentary called 'Downfall: The Case Against Boeing' on the US aircraft maker starts on Netflix.

The tag line dates back several decades and highlights the aircraft maker's significance as from passengers to pilots, everyone wanted to fly these aircraft.   .However, it's a different story now, the same popular aircraft have come under scrutiny of authorities, regulators, airline companies and even passengers in the last few years. The latest news coming on Monday when a Boeing 737-800, operated by China Eastern Airlines crashed, killing more than 130 people on board. The airline has grounded all its Boeing 737-800 passenger flights.This is not the first time. In 2018, Indonesian carrier Lion Air’s Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff. In less than six months, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, headed to Kenya, also crashed.346 passengers and crew were killed. Both planes were new Boeing 737-Maxes.Between March 2019 and December 2020, regulators worldwide grounded all 387 MAX aircraft in service with 59 airlines worldwide and making 8,600 flights each week.Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg assured the then US President Donald Trump that the airplane was safe. However, it was a little too late.The six-year-old Boeing 737-800 aircraft that crashed on Monday is part of the Next Generation planes that preceded the 737 Max.Boeing 737 Max aircraft is an advanced version of Boeing 737-800, and both belong to the 737 series.The last fatal 737-800 crash occurred in August 2020 when an Air India Express plane crashed while landing at Calicut International Airport in Kerala, killing 21 but pilot error was cited as the probable cause.The New York Times reported "of around 25,000 passenger aircraft flying currently, about 4,200 or 17 per cent, are Boeing 737-800 NGs.Three Indian carriers -- SpiceJet, Vistara and Air India Express -- have Boeing 737 aircraft in their fleets.According to the websites of the respective airlines, SpiceJet has a total of 60 Boeing 737 family planes in its fleet. Of these, 13 are 737 Max, and 47 are 737NG. Among the older version planes, SpiceJet has 36 Boeing 737-800s, five smaller Boeing 737-700s, and five larger Boeing 737-900s. Air India Express has 24 Boeing 737-800 planes, while Vistara has five 737-800 aircraft in its fleet.

Abhishek Banerjee, Practice Lead at CAPA India said, "DGCA has directed carriers using 737 aircraft to closely monitor all aspects of flight procedures and operations. For SpiceJet, AI express, and Vistara, Indian operators using 737 variants, this means ensuring all processes are strictly adhered to and documented as far as routine operations by pilots, flight crew, and maintenance crew are concerned."
Boeing is likely to be under scrutiny from the regulators and airlines worldwide yet again. In India, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has put the Boeing 737 fleets of Indian carriers on "enhanced surveillance" after the China Eastern crash, its chief Arun Kumar said, adding, "Flight safety is serious business and we are closely studying the situation."What Is Enhanced Surveillance?Under enhanced surveillance, the DGCA inspector will be monitoring Boeing aircraft operations every week. This would include monitoring aircraft systems and procedures to see how aircraft are performing from a safety perspective.

The DGCA had also banned Boeing 737 Max planes in India in March 2019. After Boeing made necessary software rectifications to the satisfaction of the DGCA, the ban on the aircraft's commercial operations was lifted after 27 months in August 2021."There was a time when it was a catch-line that if it ain't Boeing, I ain't going, now the tagline is if it's Boeing, i'm not going," Mark D Martin CEO for Martin Consulting, an aviation safety firm, said."Boeing has been under pressure for the last 4 years from 787 issues to the 737 Max, and it will not go to sell aircraft in the first world countries, it will probably come to third-world companies and dump its goods there. The bigger concern is there is a safety issue; you seldom see planes fall off from the sky at such high speed and impact itself on ground," he said. "The aircraft (that was crashed in China) was 6-year-old, so you can't even blame it on the quality of maintenance or say the aircraft was old. Even the pilots get blamed, and the worst part is the pilot is dead so as they say, dead men tell no tales, so the easiest and most heinous thing you can do is blame the pilot. The industry, airlines, regulators, etc. need to come together and question Boeing," he added.If you compare it with the number of crashes with Airbus in the last few years, it's probably nothing, he said."Even Akasa Airlines has bought a gigantic stock of their unsold inventory. I feel bad for the new airline with 737 Max fleet, because they would be in a spot," he said.Rakesh Jhunjhunwala-backed Akasa, which has ordered 70 Boeing MAX airplanes, is set to start operations in 2022, the airline is likely to compete with IndiGo, SpiceJet, and GoAir, who also low-cost carriers in the domestic market.

Banerjee said, "As of now, DGCA has only directed airlines to observe enhanced surveillance. We may hear DGCA further classifying their statement once Civil Aviation Administration and US authorities (NTSB along with technical advisory from FAA and related OEMs – Boeing and GE) get more definitive answers from the crash investigation about the root cause(s) of the crash."

Boeing has lost credibility. The pilots in the US don't want to fly Boeing. They don't trust Boeing anymore. Boeing will have to win back some credibility, but it will take a long time for that to happen, Martin said."This should be a wake-up call and eye-opener for everyone, in 2022 we can't be having such scarring accidents. In the last 3-5 years, such accidents have been on account of Boeing and the aircraft maker might crush it under the carpet because this was in China, but starting now, all Boeing aircraft will be under scrutiny, and more than anything else, passengers may refuse to fly Boeing," he added.

Amrit Padurangi, the former head of infrastructure at Deloitte said, “DGCA has put all Boeing 737 on enhanced surveillance, they want to make sure it has nothing to do with the specific model of the aircraft. They will make sure that the usual checks are made for the safety of the aircraft, discuss with Boeing what has been the experience and maybe they will ask for some documentation from the airlines like when was it last certified, etc."Until the regulator finds additional evidence about the reason for the crash, nothing more will be required other than what they call surveillance, Padurangi said.

Asked if the Boeing 737 fleet might get grounded, Pandurangi said, “This is not a new aircraft. Nobody is buying this aircraft now. People are buying later versions but in the population of aircraft which are in the market already, several older versions are there. So if any of them are grounded— because grounding an aircraft is always a lot, so it will be a serious business problem. Yeah, but that will not happen. I think it's too premature to come to the conclusion that this should be grounded and all that.”

Echoing Padurangi, Banerjee said, "We don’t see a blanket ban happening. Findings from the recent 737-800 crash should be used to implement any specific changes in terms of SOP/ practices in the field. 737NG (737-800 is a variant of 737NG series) has been a very proven platform and this accident should not be linked to the 2018–2019 737 MAX accidents."

Regarding the other measures that can be taken by the aviation sector to avoid such accidents, Banerjee said, "Safety and security remain the highest orders of concern in civil aviation. Though we are not experts and neither designated to comment, from the final trajectory and incoming information from the fatal flight MU5735 of China Eastern, the aircraft seemed to have been maneuvered to hit the ground head-on. Aviation authorities and stakeholders need to pay more attention towards reducing security risks- both physical and cyber. The enhanced focus should be on the pilot's emotional and psychological state. Through this accident- if it is proven that pilot's emotional and mental state led to the crash- we will see a new dynamic emerging which will lead to a very sharp and institutionalized approach towards the pilot's emotional and mental health. " 

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