VIEWPOINT: Safety first

Terror in Japan and can Boeing really be trusted?

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(PHOTO: NTSB)

Singapore SA2024The year started badly for aviation in Asia and elsewhere in the world with two accidents coming in the span of one week. Despite the fact that the loss of life was low in the first accident and zero in the second, both incidents are a stark reminder that, as has been said, aviation safety is paid for with the blood of dead passengers.

In the first case, a Japan Airlines (JAL) plane landing at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on 2 January collided with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft that had incorrectly entered the runway being used by the JAL plane. While no one on the passenger jet died, five people on the coast guard plane were killed.

Much has been made of the post-COVID retraining being required for nearly everyone in the aviation industry because the pandemic shutdown of the business saw a decrease in the skills of pilots, aircrew, air traffic controllers and many others. In other words, everyone got a little “rusty” when it came to doing even routine parts of their jobs.

The runway incursion in Japan was, unfortunately, not “that” unusual. The US Department of Transportation said in fiscal 2023 in the US, there were 1,756 total runway incursions with 60 percent of those attributable to pilot deviations, 20 percent caused by air traffic controller action or inaction, and the remaining 20 percent caused by vehicle or pedestrian deviations. Japanese safety authorities reported at least 23 “serious incidents” on runways over 10 years through 2023 where investigators judged there was a risk of collision between aircraft or with other vehicles.

In the JAL case, air traffic controllers at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport did not notice the Japan Coast Guard aircraft entering the runway before the collision and controllers apparently did not see a “visual” warning system that should have alerted them. The system, however, does not provide an audio alert, a shortcoming that should be rectified.

CAN BOEING BE TRUSTED?

In the new year ’s second accident, a so-called “door plug” on a Boeing 737-9 MAX operated by Alaska Airlines tore off as the plane was ascending out of Portland, Oregon, on 5 January, forcing the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ground 171 MAX -9 models.

Fortunately, no one died as a result of the incident, but the failure has again shown that Boeing has still not resolved its manufacturing problems that have affected its MAX aircraft, its 787 model and even its military planes. Boeing’s main supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, has also come under scrutiny since it produces the fuselages for Boeing. A lawsuit filed last year alleges Spirit AeroSystems had experienced “sustained quality failures” in its products. The lawsuit alleges that Spirit’s problems were “widespread,” including “the routine presence of foreign object debris (FOD) in Spirit products, missing fasteners, peeling paint, and poor skin quality.”

“Given its past problems and its present ones, can Boeing be trusted?”

“Such constant quality failures resulted in part from Spirit’s culture which prioritised production numbers and short-term financial outcomes over product quality,” the complaint claims.

Boeing too has its own history of problems with its MAX model that includes two crashes of the 737-8 model that killed 346 people. Boeing’s MCAS system was proven to be at fault and Boeing was accused of putting profits over people because it tried to downplay the importance of the MCAS system so that no additional training would be required for pilots transitioning to the -8 model.

The FAA said it is investigating whether Boeing failed to ensure that its 737-9 MAX was safe and manufactured to match the design approved by the agency. “This incident should have never happened, and it cannot happen again,” the agency said.

Alaska and United Airlines said they had discovered loose hardware on the door plug panel when conducting preliminary inspections on their planes. Dave Calhoun, Boeing’s CEO, said the company was “acknowledging our mistake” without explaining what he was referring to.

In 2020 at the sparsely attended Singapore Airshow, Boeing officials held a media briefing that discussed the 2019 grounding of the MAX-8 model due to its faulty MCAS system. I asked the assembled Boeing executives then “why should anyone trust a word that Boeing says?” The officials mumbled something about Boeing’s storied history in aviation, its commercial record, etc., etc.

But given that safety is paid for with the blood of dead passengers, the question is still valid. Given its past problems and its present ones, can Boeing be trusted? Let’s hope the answer comes before anyone else has to pay the ultimate price.

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For Editorial Inquiries Contact:
Editor Matt Driskill at matt.driskill@asianaviation.com
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Matthew Driskill is the Editor of Asian Aviation and is based in Cambodia. He has been an Asia-based journalist and content producer since 1990 for outlets including Reuters and the International Herald Tribune/New York Times and is a former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong. He frequently appears on international broadcast outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC and has taught journalism at Hong Kong University and the American University of Paris. Driskill has received awards from the Associated Press for Investigative Reporting and Business Writing and in 1989 was named the John J. McCloy Fellow by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York where he earned his Master's Degree.

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