Another dangerous incident now mars the already-troubled service history of the Boeing 737 MAX airliner. The American Federal Aviation Administration has grounded select aircraft configured similarly to an Alaska Airlines flight that suffered an in-flight blowout of a door plug on January 5, 2023, causing explosive depressurization and an emergency landing. The airline had already grounded its 737 MAX fleet pending an investigation into the blowout, with European regulatory agencies and Panamanian and Turkish flag carriers following suit in the days afterward.
The Alaska Airlines incident occurred when a plug installed in place of an emergency door experienced a component failure under the cabin’s pressure. It blew off the plane and caused the cabin to decompress at 16,000 feet rapidly. Fortunately, there were only a few minor injuries, as the seats surrounding the blowout area were unoccupied. However, reports suggest a child was nearly sucked out of the plane.
The ongoing investigation has yet to determine the cause of the blowout,. Part of the blame may fall on the manufacturer and installer of the affected part, Spirit Aero.
Crashes And Cover-Ups
The 737 MAX’s difficulties began less than two years after its initial delivery to airlines. In October 2018, a 737 MAX operated by Indonesian low-cost airline Lion Air was lost with all hands shortly after takeoff due to a loss of control by the pilots. Four months later, an Ethiopian Airlines MAX encountered similar control problems, causing it to nosedive into the ground despite the efforts of its pilots.
Investigation revealed that both crashes had the same cause: a design defect in the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a device meant to improve the plane’s handling. The MCAS suffered from a faulty angle-of-attack detector, which caused the system to perceive the two crashed aircraft as climbing at a dangerously high angle when they were within safe margins.
The MCAS would push the nose down to combat the perceived high angle of attack, overpowering the pilots’ efforts to pull up and sending the aircraft into fatal dives. The MCAS was also used to compensate for unexpected pitching up caused by changes to the position of the 737 MAX’s engines compared to earlier versions instead of more significant, expensive, and time-consuming design changes that could have more effectively compensated.
Boeing did not include information about the MCAS or any of its functions in the manuals for their aircraft, as they believed it to be unnecessary due to the system being part of the broader flight control code. Even after the Lion Air crash, they continued to obscure the existence of the MCAS as they attempted to solve its issues. Only after the Ethiopian Airlines crash was the MCAS revealed as the root of the disasters. Even then, the FAA refused to ground the 737 MAX until a year later, in 2019.
The subsequent grounding of all 737 MAX aircraft lasted from March 2019 to November 2020. The affair led to FAA certification reform and significant market share losses for Boeing, who fired multiple officials, including CEO Dennis Muilenberg. Boeing also paid $237 million in lawsuit settlements for the crashes. Since the groundings, no 737 MAX accidents related to MCAS issues have been recorded.
The Future Of The MAX
The series of lies and design flaws surrounding the 737 MAX has exposed significant deficiencies in Boeing’s business philosophy and the FAA’s regulatory oversight. The impact of this latest incident on the future of the beleaguered airliner and potential changes within the company and government agency remains uncertain.
Image credits: Mario Tama/Getty Images, Instagram @strawberrvy via Reuters
Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke
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