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Why are Boeings still flying?

Editorial Staff

Another Boeing has crashed killing everyone on board. Again, it was a new aircraft. Boeing have long had a problem with quality control which regulators have shrugged off or allowed jerry-rigged solutions to be implemented. Why are they allowed to get away with it? Has the airline industry not learned the lessons of the Ford Pinto?

When the Boeing 787, the so-called Dreamliner, was undergoing testing cracks developed in the fuselage. The solution was, in essence to Sellotape over the cracks. Then the fires started; unrelated to the cracking body. These were battery fires and continued even after the aircraft went into service. Only after airlines, encouraged but not ordered, by regulators, parked the aircraft and delayed or cancelled orders did Boeing take steps to address the problem. The "solution" was to put a metal box around the batteries so that if they burst into flames, the fire would be contained. The reason was simple: while, later, passengers would be banned from putting Li On batteries in their luggage for fear of fire, the new aircraft relied on exactly that technology. And the B787 is a political beast as much as it is a commercial product with components being produced all over the world in deals that are likely only with government co-operation.

No one knows why Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared five years ago this week. That was a fully serviced Boeing 777. While all manner of theories abound, the simple truth is that no facts are available to provide any grounds for even preliminary conclusion. All theories rely on nothing more than the unauthorised and seemingly controlled flight path after the aircraft's comms went dark but the engines' "pings" were received giving some idea of the route it took and, while the working assumption is that the proximate cause of the disappearance was that the aircraft ran out of fuel somewhere over the Indian Ocean, there is nothing other than the occasional publicity-seeking theorist, to suggest how that state of affairs came about. As the TV cop shows say "nothing can be ruled in, but nothing can be ruled out."

On 29th October last year a three-months old Boeing 737-800 MAX, the latest variant of the venerable jet which bears little technological resemblance to the original, crashed shortly after take-off from Jakarta for a short domestic flight killing all on board. While commentators rushed to blame Lion Air, an Indonesian airline that, like all Indonesian airlines, had a poor safety record that had seen, in the past, orders banning them from international skies,its mechanics and pilots, there was immediate evidence that neither the maintenance nor the pilots were to blame. Were they perfect? No. Were they contributory factors for the crash? Unlikely. "Unlikely" did not mean that blame would fall on the aircraft.

But now it seems that it should have done: yesterday, a second B730-800 MAXm, flight ET302, crashed, killing all on board. The circumstances are almost a carbon copy of the crash of Lion Air flight JT610.

Shortly after take-off from Bole airport, Addis Ababa en route for Nairobi, the pilot had requested a turn-back shortly after take-off. Flightradar 24 says that the aircraft had unstable vertical speed: exactly what was reported in the Lion Air case.. Six minutes later, 157 people were dead in a field near a town. The crash site will mean that finding evidence will be a far easier (but due to fire and impact damage a more grisly) job than in the Lion Air crash where the wreckage was embedded in deep mud. Like the Lion Air aircraft, it was almost new : "We received the aeroplane on 15 November, 2018. It has flown more than 1,200 hours. It had flown from Johannesburg earlier this morning,”, said the airline's CEO, Mr. Tewolde GebreMariam. Ethiopia Airlines is regarded as a very safe airline.

The aircraft remains licensed for flight and, unlike Lion Air, Ethiopian Airways has not taken its remaining B737-800 MAX planes out of service, according to Mr Tewolde who says this is because the cause of the crash is not clear.

In Indonesia, all the aircraft of similar type were passed for flight but, in the light of the Addis Ababa crash, additional inspections of all those in the country were ordered. In China, regulators have ordered that all B737-800 MAX aircraft be returned to base and grounded. There were, reports say, eight Chinese nationals on board the Ethopian Airlines flight.

China is a large market for the model, taking about 20% of its production run to date. The plane currently contributes about 30% of Boeing's operating profit, the Straits Times reported in a syndicated report from Bloomberg which analysed Boeing's accounts.

Boeing is a strategic company in the USA and any threat to it is potentially political. However, as noted above, it is also a customer for expensive technology sourced from abroad. The company is already worried about the development of Chinese rivals to its aircraft and, in terms of Chinese sales, is making hay while the sun shines.

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