Jetliner unlikely to fly again for months as lawsuits against the company mount
After two fatal crashes of its 737 Max jetliner, Boeing is seeking to rebuild its image with a technological fix and an extensive public relations campaign to win back the public's trust and boost sales. The effort has encountered turbulence.
Earlier this month, Boeing announced that it would cut Max production to 42 planes a month from 52, a reduction of nearly 20 percent. But the world's largest aircraft manufacturer will survive the crisis because airlines are eager to buy new, fuel-efficient planes and rival Airbus cannot meet worldwide demand, analysts said.
"The engineering problems will be solved," John Cochran, professor emeritus of Aerospace Engineering at Auburn University in Alabama and president of Eaglemark, an aviation consulting firm, told China Daily. "Most people don't fully understand how airplanes fly. Boeing must convince the public its planes are safe."
Crashes of Boeing 737 Max planes in March in Ethiopia and October in Indonesia killed a total of 346 people. The cause of the crashes has not yet been determined and may involve a series of events, including pilot action.
In response, Boeing is developing new software for its anti-stall system, also known as MCAS. The company said test pilots have made 96 flights totaling 159 hours using the updated software and the fix will soon be installed and tested in planes used in commercial flights. However, approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, and installation of the new software worldwide are still months away.
Airlines do not expect Max jets to fly soon. Southwest Airlines, a US discount carrier, has 34 Max jetliners and has canceled flights using the aircraft through early August. Air Canada, owner of 24 MAX jets, has adjusted its schedule through May 31.
New software is only part of the effort to get Max jets back in the air. Boeing needs the approval of impartial, outside participants to regain public trust, analysts said.
The FAA has organized an international panel headed by Christopher Hart, former chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board, to review the plane's safety. So far, representatives from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, China, Canada, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil have agreed to participate. The panel is expected to hold its first meeting this month.
The FAA has not relinquished final approval of Max aircraft, but including others will give credibility to the recertification of the plane. Boeing and the FAA have been criticized for their cozy relationship in the initial approval of Max aircraft, and that may change the way aircraft are certified in the future.
"Innovators produce new designs－not regulators," Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann &Co, an aviation consulting firm in New York, told China Daily. "This is true in pharmaceuticals and other industries that participate in a certification process. An international center of excellence for aircraft certification could help avoid the politicization of the process. This may suggest a better way to do things."
Boeing will face another problem after Max jets are flying again: lawsuits.
About 30 lawsuits have been filed in Chicago federal court stemming from the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes.
The first problem is determining where the cases should be heard. Plaintiffs want the cases held in the United States because juries often make larger monetary awards and court rules make more information about the aircraft available to their attorneys.
Boeing is expected to ask the court to move the cases out of the US and to the nation where the crashes occurred or families of the victims reside. There were no US citizens aboard the Lion Air flight, but there were eight US citizens aboard the Ethiopian Airlines flight.
Boeing also faces a stockholder lawsuit. A case filed in Chicago federal court alleges Boeing defrauded investors by concealing known deficiencies in 737 Max aircraft prior to the crashes of the two planes that led to a worldwide grounding of the aircraft and a sharp decline in the company's stock price.
Plaintiff Richard Seeks asked the court last week to make the case a class-action lawsuit in behalf of all shareholders who lost money following the crashes. In the lawsuit, Seeks said he purchased 300 shares of Boeing stock in early March and recently sold the stock at a loss.