737 MAX cleared for flights from 29/ 12. What does this mean for Indian Carriers such as SpiceJet ?

Boeing’s 737 MAX staged its first post-grounding flight on 2nd December, after a 20-month safety ban. American Airlines who intend to start scheduled services using the 737 MAX from the 29th December flew this 45-minute hop from Dallas, Texas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma with media onboard. Earlier on November 18th the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorised the 737 MAX to re-enter U.S. airline service, with other countries regulatory agencies also expected to re-certify it soon.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation India will take a final call after studying the U.S. airline regulator’s decision before allowing 737 MAX planes to fly again in the Indian skies. Only two Indian carriers SpiceJet and now halted Jet Airways were operating the MAX aircraft before they were grounded in March 2018 on safety concerns. As of December 2020, there are 385 MAXs grounded around the world of which SpiceJet has a fleet of 13 of these aircrafts. Globally there are around 4,000 MAX on order of which SpiceJet has 153 firm orders.

The aircraft returns to service during a pandemic that has crushed air travel demand and left questions over customers willingness to fly. Airlines currently have less need for new aircraft given they have many parked aircraft. However even at today’s low fuel prices the MAX offers around 15% fuel savings, are much more climate friendly and has an average dispatch reliability rate of 99.4% compared to previous generation aircraft, along with reduced warranty and MRO costs which cannot be ignored.

The MAX also offers an increased range that allows airlines to fly the aircraft on longer sectors, perhaps better matching reduced COVID-related long-haul travel demand that has so deeply impacted widebody aircraft operations. This will put further pressure on older passenger widebody aircraft such as A330s and B767s.

Airlines in India have invested a lot of man hours in storing and maintaining its planes and would further have to invest time in readying its planes for the crucial return-to-service. Further to approval from the DGCA, carriers such as SpiceJet need to work closely with the regulator and Boeing, as well as the pilots, safety and maintenance teams. A further month or two would be required to commence its return to service post the approval and another 2-3 months to ramp up for all the 737 MAX aircraft to return to service. They would also need to start planning to address any potential training capacity shortages right away to avoid any further delays.

Some of the key tasks to be completed MAX’s return to service are:

  • All Boeing 737 MAX pilots will have to complete the regulatory approved training, including computer-based training, classroom briefings and rigorous 737 MAX simulator training, which can take 3-4 months.
  • All maintenance requirements in the Airworthiness Directive need to be completed, including updating the software. It can take six to eight days for each aircraft to go through the necessary directives to be certified to fly again, including MCAS software updates (which take six hours) and the rewiring of certain flight control systems.
  • Following the engineering reworks, each aircraft needs to be put through a two-hour Operational Readiness Flight (ORF) with particular emphasis on testing the aircraft’s MCAS software updates and runaway trim, a malfunction that occurs when the Trimmable Horizontal Stabilizer on the aircraft tail fails to stop at the selected position and continues to deflect the pitch of the aircraft up or down.
  • All licensed aviation maintenance technicians will need to sign off on every plane as they do with other aircraft.
  • Trust in regulatory, airline, equipment and operations need to be regained. Additionally, it must be verified in day-to-day operations, and in the future via renewed focus on design, man-machine interface and training.

Still, not every passenger will be ready to fly on a MAX. It is important the airlines, are transparent by alerting passengers that they are traveling on a MAX and give them the option to change their flight or get a refund if they’re not comfortable.

SpiceJet is one among the 70 airlines around the world who operate the MAX and the aircraft is critical for SpiceJet’s recovery and growth. They now face the daunting goal of convincing a wary public, many afraid of flying during a pandemic to begin with, to feel comfortable traveling in the Boeing 737 MAX again. The MAX is now the most heavily scrutinized aircraft in history, and according to experts possibly the safest. CAPA India expects the MAX to be operational in India in Q1 FY 2021-22.

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