Boeing 737 MAX: what other aircraft have been grounded?

Our travel correspondent looks at the background to taking the Boeing 737 MAX out of service 

Simon Calder
Thursday 14 March 2019 15:27
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Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) grounds Boeing 737 MAX 8

Grounding an entire model of aircraft is so rare that there are only a handful of case studies. When an individual airline loses an aircraft, as so tragically happened on Sunday morning in Ethiopia, it is common for that carrier to take the plane type out of service.

It makes sense to do so: to assess whether there is something about, for example, the airline's maintenance procedures or pilot training for that particular aircraft model.

Ethiopian Airlines grounded its Boeing 737 MAX jets immediately after the loss of ET302, just as British Airways had done with its 737s after BA’s last fatal accident, at Manchester in 1985.

There is an argument that, following any plane crash, all aircraft of the same type should stay on the ground until the cause is ascertained – in case a hidden flaw is responsible.

But in the case of Air France 447, the Airbus A330 that crashed in the Atlantic en route from Rio to Paris in 2009, such a policy would have kept one of the world’s most popular and successful planes from flying for two years. It took that long until the “black boxes” were found on the ocean bed.

The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder revealed the ghastly sequence of inappropriate responses to survivable technical faults that led to the needless deaths of 228 passengers and crew.

Aviation regulators focus intently on safety, but they are also obliged to enable people to fly. They are averse to banning specific types, and will generally not do so unless there is a recurring issue.

Concorde was an exception. The supersonic jet was made in such small numbers and flew so few missions that relatively little safety data had accumulated by 25 July 2000, when Air France 4590 crashed shortly after take off from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Four people on the ground died, as well as all 109 on board.

British Airways kept flying between London and New York. But when investigators discovered a fatal weakness in the airliner’s skin, which allowed a piece of debris to puncture a fuel tank, BA was ordered to ground its Concorde fleet until modifications were made.

The number of passengers inconvenienced by the temporary halt to supersonic flying was only in the tens of thousands. When the Boeing 787 was grounded for three months early in 2013, many more travellers were affected. The “Dreamliner” suffered several fires, thankfully non-fatal, caused by malfunction of its lithium-ion batteries.

Boeing was obliged to make expensive modifications before the aircraft was allowed back into service.

The 787 is now highly regarded by passengers, and operates some of the longest flights in the world – with passengers happy to step aboard the plane at Heathrow for the 17-hour flight to Perth in Western Australia.

In contrast, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was essentially an excellent aircraft which never recovered from its grounding in 1979, following a sequence of fatal crashes.

Boeing will know that reputations in aviation are difficult to build and can quickly be undermined. While the 737 remains the most successful jet aircraft in aviation history, the planemaker will have to work hard to regain public confidence.

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