Two fatal crashes put Boeing's best-selling plane in the spotlight - again

Questions arise after similarities between Ethiopian Air and Indonesia's Lion Air crash involving the 737 Max 8

Lion Air investigators examine part of the landing gear of the ill-fated Lion Air flight JT 610 at the port in northern Jakarta on November 5, 2018. The Boeing 737 Max 8 with 189 people plunged into the Java Sea just 12 minutes after takeoff on a routine one-hour flight from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang city in Sumatra on October 29. / AFP / AZWAR IPANK
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The deadly crash of Ethiopian Airlines' Nairobi-bound flight 302 on Sunday, has once again put Boeing's 737 Max 8 under spotlight. Questions arise on whether the incident is similar to another fatal crash of Indonesia's Lion Air, also flying a 737 Max 8 jet in October. The accidents prompt queries if a flight control issue that caused the Lion Air crash could be at fault.

The cause of the Ethiopian Air crash is still being determined and Boeing said it is sending a technical team to help with the investigation. The second crash involving the jet has prompted Ethiopia and China to ground their 737 Max 8 aircraft.

Boeing's newest version of its best-selling 737 family is an industry workhorse, popular with airlines on short-haul routes and a regular feature of air travel for passengers for decades, making it the cash cow of the world's biggest plane maker.

What is the 737 Max 8?

The aircraft is part of Boeing’s 737 Max family and entered into service in 2017. The single-aisle plane can seat as many as 210 passengers and is powered by two CFM LEAP-1B engines. The 737 Max 8 model is 39.52 metres long and has a 35.9 metre wingspan. The jet competes with Airbus’s A320neo range of aircraft and has a list price of $117.1 million (Dh429m).

Which regional airlines fly the 737 Max 8?

Flydubai is the only UAE operator using the jets. It has 11 Boeing 737 Max 8 and 2 Boeing 737 Max 9 in service. Other regional operators include Oman Air, Turkish Air, Qatar Airways, while Kuwaiti lessor Alafco has the jets on order, according to Boeing's website.

Globally, more than 100 airlines operate the aircraft and it is popular with low-cost companies such as Indonesian Lion Air and other big operators globally.

What are the main selling points of 737 Max?

The jet's selling points are fuel efficiency, with more in cost savings than other narrow-body aircraft, and reliability, allowing operators to use the jet frequently with a quick turnaround time.

Technologically, the 737 Max incorporates new fly-by-wire systems for its primary control surfaces, instead of clunky manual controls, making it lighter in weight.

“The new advanced technology winglets also help slash fuel burn by up to 3 per cent which saves airlines hundreds of millions of dollars and gallons of fuel each year,” said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at Strategic Aero Research. Fuel economy is particularly important for low cost airlines that operate a slew of flights across their ever-expanding networks.

These advantages make the 737 Max the "airplane of choice among operators who are looking to hedge their bets against a backdrop of rising fuel prices", said Mr Ahmad.

Turkish Airlines, which has more than 300 aircraft in service, has leveraged the extended reach of narrow-body aircraft to service destinations in Africa, while flydubai is now operating a daily service between Dubai and Helsinki.

How important is the 737 Max to Boeing?

Boeing has an order backlog of 4,699 planes for the aircraft from more than 100 customers globally, including flydubai, India’s SpiceJet, China Southern Airlines, Virgin Australia, American Airlines, Air Canada, Ethiopian Airlines and Turkish Airlines, among many others. Lion Air placed a $22.4 billion order for 230 737 Max aircraft in 2012.

The 737 Max model is Boeing's fastest-selling plane family in its 102-year history. “Its importance cannot be understated. It's a high volume produced machine with spectacular margins for the company,” said Mr Ahmad.

A 737 takes off every 2.5 seconds somewhere around the world.

The 737 Max could generate about $30bn in annual revenue as factory output rises to 57-jet monthly rate this year, according to Bloomberg Intelligence estimates.

What other issues has Boeing faced with its aircraft?

Six years ago, Boeing faced another high-profile trouble with a new plane model, when its 787 Dreamliners were grounded after a series of battery problems.