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Boeing’s latest inflight emergency threatens new crisis after 737 Max crashes

Alan Tovey
·6 min read
Boeing
Boeing

Video of a jet engine in flames shot by terrified passengers 30,000ft aloft, or images of aircraft debris being scattered far and wide on the ground are a public relations nightmare for any aerospace company.

But for Boeing, which is battling to recover from the fallout from the 737 Max crisis after two of the jets crashed killing 346 people, the threat is even greater.

However, the US aviation giant’s reaction to a United Airlines Boeing 777 suffering an engine failure on a flight from Denver to Hawaii is very different to its actions after the first 737 Max crash in October 2018.

This time, Boeing was quick to announce it recommended grounding all 128 of the 777s with the type of engine that failed.

The company said it supported the decisions made by the Japanese and US air safety bodies to “suspend operations of 777 aircraft powered by Pratt & Whitney 4000-112 engine”, while UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said he is banning 777s with the affected engine from British skies.

Boeing’s response contrasts with its efforts after the Lion Air crash in Indonesia to keep the bestselling 737 Max in the air.

Court documents unearthed last month from a lawsuit filed by Boeing investors allege that executives ordered “a public relations, investor relations and lobbying campaign” to counter bad publicity about the Max.

Boeing also highlighted what it claimed were pilot and maintenance errors as factors in the Lion Air crash, after pilots aired concerns about the plane’s safety.

Filings from the case also allege Boeing did not order an immediate investigation into the MCAS control system on the 737 Max which has been blamed for the crashes, despite the FAA warning it “posed an unacceptably high risk of catastrophic failure”.

After a second 737 Max operated by Ethiopian Airlines went down near Addis Ababa in March 2019, aviation regulators around the world were quick to ground the jet.

However, the FAA was slower to act, and Boeing only recommended grounding the jet several days later, saying that after consulting with the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board it had decided to take it out of service “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft's safety”.

The 737 Max remained grounded until last month. After extensive investigations into the crashes, modifications and extra pilot training – not to mention brutal public grillings of executives and revelations about safety concerns within the company and its close relationship with regulators – the jet was cleared to fly again.

Boeing’s response to the latest crisis may show it has learned lessons but all that work could be threatened by the latest inflight emergency.

“Until recently, the general public only knew two aircraft in civil aviation history: Concorde and the 747 Jumbo Jet,” says Marc Szepan, lecturer at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School and a former Lufthansa executive. “The Max changed all that and has the dubious distinction of becoming the third aircraft they were aware of.”

He adds that Boeing’s fast response to grounding 777s fitted with the Pratt & Whitney 4000-112 engine that failed on the United Airlines flight means the company is “showing the ultimate constructive compliance to regulators.”

Management will be doing everything they can to “prevent the significant level of concern over the Max spreading to become a general concern about Boeing products”, adds Szepan.

However, it might not be enough, according to Alastair Pickering, co-founder of stakeholder intelligence business Alva, which monitors public perception.

“This latest incident threatens to undermine the reputational recovery work that Boeing has undertaken,” he says. “That it is safety related will also revive and reinforce existing stakeholder concerns over the company’s reputation in this department, which had shown signs of improvement in recent weeks. The more positive news is that they appear to have acted quickly this time around, suggesting that lessons have been learned.”

Piling further pressure on Boeing is that its new version of the 777, the larger 777X, is likely to be years late coming into service after developmental problems.

If the investigation into the latest incident unearths further concerns about Boeing, the 777X could find itself less attractive to airlines looking to upgrade their fleets. That would boost arch rival Airbus, which is much better placed to weather the crisis in aviation caused by the pandemic.

Parts of the aircraft in a Denver garden following engine explosion
Parts of the aircraft in a Denver garden following engine explosion

But for all the concerns about Boeing, the business that should really be under scrutiny is Raytheon, the US company that makes Pratt and Whitney engines.

Early indications are that the problem was with the blades inside the engine, with some reports that they may have had fractures that caused them to fail. Whether this is a design issue or maintenance flaw will almost certainly be revealed by the investigation but that could take months.

That the problem is with the engine and not the design of the aircraft itself will come as a some relief to Boeing.

Of more than 1,600 777s the company has produced, relatively few - just 128 - have the Pratt & Whitney 4000-112, with most powered by GE and Rolls-Royce engines, according to travel data and analytics firm Cirium.

The Pratt & Whitney engine is not a new product either, effectively being in the “sunset” of its life as engine makers look to new aircraft such as the 777X.

But there is still plenty of life in the existing 777, meaning Pratt & Whitney could face a hefty bill if the issues prove to be endemic. This could happen. The weekend’s incident was the third time in three years a 777 with the engine type has suffered a failure.

And it’s not just the 777 that is affected. The Pratt & Whitney 4000 family is fitted to almost 800 passenger and cargo aircraft worldwide, and another also suffered an incident at the weekend.

An engine on a 30-year old Boeing 747 freighter failed on take-off in the Netherlands, with debris falling to the ground, hitting one person and damaging cars. No action has yet been taken to ground the aircraft.

Luckily, such incidents are rare. “Think of the millions of hours of flights without anything happening,” says John Strickland, of aviation consultancy JLS. “To have two engine failures in one weekend is just an incredibly random co-incidence.”

Rare as they might be, for passengers hoping to return to the skies in a post-pandemic era when travel restrictions ease, it's just another worry.

“There’s a saying in aviation, that ‘aerospace companies sell thrust, but airlines buy trust’,” says Szepan. “That’s never been more significant for Boeing now.”