As 171 Boeing 737s are grounded in US, are Indian carriers at risk?
According to reports, Boeing shares fell steeply in premarket trade as markets digested the news that the FAA had ordered the temporary grounding
In a harrowing incident that narrowly avoided tragedy, a Boeing 737 Max 9 operated by Alaska Airlines suffered a catastrophic failure on 5 January, as a mid-cabin door plug blew out during the flight, creating a gaping hole in row 26.
The subsequent emergency forced the aircraft into an unplanned diversion, prompting immediate action from both the airline and aviation authorities.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wasted no time in responding to the alarming event, ordering the grounding of most 737 Max 9 planes used by Alaska as well as United Airlines globally, affecting 171 aircraft. The grounding is to facilitate inspections, ensuring the safety and integrity of the fleet. The FAA stated that the planes will remain grounded until the agency is satisfied that they pose no safety risks.
Alaska Airlines had promptly grounded its Max 9 fleet already, before the FAA order and emergency airworthiness directive.
According to reports, Boeing shares fell steeply in premarket trade as markets digested the news that the FAA had ordered the temporary grounding, going down more than 8 per cent in early hours trading by 5.05 am EST (about 3.30 pm IST).
The incident has also triggered a broader response from aviation authorities worldwide.
In India, too, where three airlines — Akasa Air, SpiceJet and Air India Express — operate the MAX type planes, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has precautionary measures. Though none of the Indian carriers operate the MAX 9 variant, the DGCA has directed all operators to conduct a one-time inspection of emergency exits on Boeing 737-8 Max aircraft. The checks, involving the operation and proper closing of over-wing emergency exits, were completed on 7 January 2024.
Notably, Akasa Air's fleet includes one B737-8200 aircraft, which also has a mid-cabin door, and its operational check has also been completed satisfactorily.
The Alaska Airlines incident with the MAX 9 specifically involved a rear mid-cabin plug separation, resulting in rapid decompression and an emergency diversion.
Boeing includes a rear cabin exit door aft of the wings in the 737-9 MAX, typically activated in dense seating configurations. However, Alaska Airlines permanently 'plugs' these doors, and passengers seated in these areas may not be aware of their row's atypical hull configuration.
The FAA's grounding impacts only those airlines with permanently plugged doors on the MAX 9 aircraft, excluding those with high-density configurations (where the door is functional). Preliminary indications suggest that the plug holding the inactive door in place tore off, leading to a door detachment and rapid depressurisation, forcing an emergency landing.
Despite the global attention on the MAX 9, however, no regulator — either local or global, has raised concerns about the MAX 8 or MAX 8200 models used in India. The 40 MAX aircraft in India do not feature the 'plugged door' configuration.
As investigations unfold, Indian regulators and operators are closely monitoring directives from the FAA, awaiting further insights into the Alaska Airlines incident. The aviation community also remains vigilant, as Boeing faces increased scrutiny, grappling to restore confidence in its best-selling jet amid a series of quality flaws.
DW reported that this is only the latest in a series of safety issues on Boeing aircraft in the last several years. "The twin-engine, single-aisle MAX 9 is the newest version of most-flown commercial series of aircraft in the world, Boeing 737s. Two MAX 8 aircrafts crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people and prompting a worldwide grounding of all MAX 8 and MAX 9 planes that lasted nearly two years," a news report by DW said.