Boeing’s nightmare start to the new year

Last Updated: 10. Januar 2024By

The year 2024 has started anything but well for the aviation industry. Right at the beginning of the year, a plane collision at Tokyo airport made headlines, killing five occupants of the smaller aircraft, while the passengers of the involved Airbus miraculously managed to escape alive from the fiery inferno.

Only a few days later, the next terrifying news: A Boeing plane of Alaska Airlines lost a cabin part shortly after takeoff. With a gaping hole in the fuselage, the emergency landing was successful without any fatalities – but the US aviation authority is alarmed. The accident plane is a 737 Max, which has already caused a lot of controversy in the past.

737 Max: Just on the road to recovery After two crashes, the entire fleet was subject to a worldwide flight ban, and for almost two years, the 737 Max was not allowed to take off or land. Extensive software improvements were necessary before the aircraft was allowed to fly again. In China, Boeing has only been allowed to deliver 737 Max again for a few weeks, and for almost five years, the export of jets to China has been prohibited by the Chinese government after the crashes and the comprehensive grounding.

Therefore, the US company is now hit hard by the new incidents. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) immediately responded with a flight ban within the US for the approximately 170 aircraft of this type and ordered an inspection. And indeed: Both Alaska Airlines and United Airlines found further defects in the affected component in other planes. It is the cover plate of an unused emergency exit, about the size of a normal aircraft door, which is apparently not properly attached. During the inspections, loose screws and components were noticed, and further incidents cannot be ruled out.

Boeing CEO admits mistakes and promises clarification If the investigations reveal that it is indeed a design flaw, it would be a disaster for Boeing. The 737 is the most popular series of the company and has been in the air for decades, but since the update to the Max variant a few years ago, problems have been piling up. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun expressed his concern about the recent incidents and promised transparency during the investigation and cooperation with the relevant authorities.

The fact that no one was harmed in the incident was mostly a matter of luck: the cabin part broke off a few minutes after takeoff at an altitude of about 5,000 meters during the climb. At this point, the passengers were still buckled up. In addition, no one was sitting directly next to the affected area.

Alaska Airlines: Cautious or negligent? In addition to Boeing, the executives of Alaska Airlines must also face questions: Prior to the incident, there were already warnings regarding the cabin pressure on several flights with the affected plane. As a result, the airline decided not to use the plane for routes over the open sea but only to fly over land.

According to aviation experts, this is a routine precautionary measure: If the cabin pressure drops during the flight, jets have to fly at lower altitudes. Here, the air resistance is greater, and more fuel is consumed. In the worst case, the plane runs out of fuel, which would have devastating consequences over the Pacific – for example, on the route to Hawaii. By using the plane over land, the airline ensured that an emergency landing is possible if necessary.

Manufacturer, certification authority, airline: Where is which mistake? However, some observers also raise the question of whether the airline acted cautiously or rather negligently: Was the plane really airworthy? Or is the mistake further up in the chain: Should the authorities not have allowed the jet? Did Boeing make mistakes?

All of this is now the subject of further investigations. For Boeing and its investors, the situation is a nightmare: At the end of 2023, the Boeing share had just recovered, and now it is once again plunging steeply. In the first 10 days of the current year alone, the stock has already lost more than 12 percent of its value.

If the investigations reveal that the problems with the 737 Max series are again more extensive, possibly revealing structural flaws in the entire fleet, the recent plunge of the Boeing share is likely only the beginning.