Sunday’s tragic Ethiopian Airlines crash is worrying for many reasons, not just the scale of the catastrophe of 157 citizens of 35 nations, including India, losing their lives. This is the second crash in five months involving the modern Boeing workhorse B-737 Max 8 jets, of which 300 are now flying around the globe with various airlines, as huge orders are in the works. India’s Jet Airways and SpiceJet also fly this aircraft. The alarm bells have been ringing loud and clear since a similarity was spotted in two crashes, the first that of the Lion Airlines aircraft flying inter-island in Indonesia with an experienced Indian pilot. Both jets went down within minutes of takeoff. Simulations of the Lion Air crash based on the recovered black box data revealed frightening images of an plane bucking like a bronco and falling steeply nose first even as the pilot struggled for control.
As a precaution, China, the biggest customer of the new Max (introduced in 2017) has grounded its entire Max fleet despite disruptions to the its burgeoning domestic tourism market. The Cayman Islands (2), Ethiopia (6) and Indonesia (11) have taken quick decisions to ground the Max. The haunting question on whether modern aircraft are so advanced in their fly-by-wire systems that the smallest malfunction in software programs can cause such disasters has to be answered first. Every time a major crash occurs, people must be convinced everything is being done for safety although modern aviation can be said to have got so safe that fatal crashes are statistically just a minuscule percentage compared to the number of flights globally. However, there were two other crashes over the weekend involving smaller aircraft, enhancing doubts over whether we are getting blasé over safety in the skies.
India’s aviation regulator DGCA has only posed some queries to the two Indian airlines flying the B-737 Max 8 rather than pass edicts on the need to ground the planes until we know more about what caused virtually brand-new aircraft to crash. The bleeding state the nation’s airlines are in after taking a bruising from competing with budget airlines and passenger traffic increasing by the day, means aviation safety protocols are in danger of being bypassed. Air passenger traffic in India grew threefold from 69 million in 2008-09 to over 183 million in 2016-17, and such expansion can’t have come without adequate investment in infrastructure. The great worry in the era of open skies and perennially expanding traffic is whether airlines, always strapped for cash, are spending enough on top-flight maintenance to assure safe operations. The Boeing Max issue adds a problem of a very new dimension to the world of civil aviation, already buffeted by headwinds of ballooning oil prices and increasing costs as against travel getting cheaper for the flier.