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CAAS grounds the Boeing 737 MAX. What now for SilkAir?

CAAS in Singapore joins a number of other authorities in grounding the 737 MAX

737 MAX 9 (Boeing)

Shortly before 5.30am today, SilkAir’s Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft 9V-MBD landed in Changi from Kathmandu as flight MI413, joining the airline’s five other MAX aircraft on the ground in Singapore.

Subsequently four flights due to depart using the MAX this morning, to Phuket, Kuala Lumpur, Darwin and Kathmandu, were all flown using the airline’s Boeing 737-800 jets instead. It looked like the 737 MAX was grounded in Singapore.

A short time ago this news was confirmed, with the Civil Aviation Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) ordering the grounding of six Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft belonging to SilkAir, following the fatal accident which occurred to an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa on Sunday.

CAAS has also applied the suspension, which will take effect from 2pm Singapore time today, to all other Boeing 737 MAX operators into and out of Changi. It is thought to be the first authority to apply the suspension to foreign carriers as well as its own.

The Ethiopian event was the second fatal crash involving the 737 MAX in a five-month period, following a similar accident to a Lion Air aircraft departing from Jakarta on 29th October 2018. In total 189 people died in the Lion Air crash, and a further 157 people in the Ethiopian crash.

Ethiopian 737 MAX (Boeing).jpg
The Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX aircraft involved in the recent crash, similar to the one pictured above, was only 4 months old. (Photo: Boeing)

Over 350 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft have been delivered to 46 customers worldwide.

So far the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation in Indonesia (DGCA) have also ordered their nation’s airlines to stop flying these aircraft, with Ethiopian Airlines and Cayman Airways quickly grounding their fleets voluntarily.

Since then several other airlines have decided to suspend 737 MAX operations:

  • Aeroméxico

  • Aerolíneas Argentinas
  • Comair (South Africa)
  • Eastar Jet
  • GOL (Brazil)
  • Jet Airways
  • MIAT Mongolian Airlines

  • Royal Air Maroc

A worldwide grounding of the type, which would come from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), would lead to significant flight disruption for several airlines. At this stage however major regulators the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have stopped short of ordering a grounding.

Update 12th March 16:37: Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has ordered that Boeing 737 MAX operations be suspended until more is known about the Ethiopian accident. SilkAir and Fiji Airways are the only two airlines flying the 737 MAX to Australia, with the former already swapping out their MAX aircraft for other types.

The regulator said in a statement ““CASA regrets any inconvenience to passengers but believes it is important to always put safety first.”

Fiji Airways earlier stated it had “full confidence in the airworthiness” of its MAX aircraft, but will now have to fly different aircraft types on Australian routes.

SilkAir

In Singapore the CAAS grounding will only affect Singapore Airlines’ regional arm SilkAir, currently operating six Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, the newest of which was delivered last week and entered service on 10th March (the same day as the Ethiopian crash).

These aircraft operate 130 flights per week based on the GDS timetable for the week commencing 18th March 2019, across 12 destinations.

SilkAir also has the following aircraft in its fleet:

  • 17 Boeing 737-800s
  • 8 Airbus A320s
  • 2 Airbus A319s

Here’s how the six SilkAir Boeing 737 MAX aircraft were used in the current schedule.

City Days
M T W T F S S
Bangalore
(MI424/423)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Cairns
(MI811/812)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Cairns
(MI813/814)
Plane3 Plane3
Chongqing
(MI972/971)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Chongqing
(MI976/975)
Plane3 Plane3
Chongqing
(MI980/979)
Plane3 Plane3
Darwin
(MI801/802)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Hiroshima
(MI868/867)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Hyderabad
(MI474/473)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Hyderabad
(MI472/471)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Kathmandu
(MI414/413)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Kathmandu
(MI412/411)
Plane3 Plane3
Kuala Lumpur
(MI322/321)
Plane3
Kuala Lumpur
(MI328/327)
Plane3
Kuala Lumpur
(MI330/329)
Plane3
Kuala Lumpur
(MI342/341)
Plane3
Penang
(MI350/349)
Plane3 Plane3
Pnomh Penh
(MI608/607)
Plane3 Plane3
Pnomh Penh
(MI602/601)
Plane3 Plane3
Phuket
(MI750/749)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Phuket
(MI754/753)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Phuket
(MI756/755)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3
Phuket
(MI758/757)
Plane3
Wuhan
(MI986/985)
Plane3 Plane3 Plane3 Plane3

Serving these 130 weekly flights with six fewer aircraft in the fleet will be a challenge for SilkAir, and will no doubt require some reshuffling of resources.

It’s likely that on routes where other group airlines also operate flights, like Kuala Lumpur and Bali, some of the slack may be taken up by re-protecting passengers on Singapore Airlines or Scoot services.

To add to the complexity, some of the longer non-stop services to destinations such as Hiroshima and Cairns, which take advantage of the enhanced range of the 737 MAX, may not be possible using other aircraft in the fleet, necessitating load limits or en-route refuelling stops.

A non-stop Cairns flight MI813/814 is set to operate tomorrow morning, with a Hiroshima service in the early hours of Thursday, and it will be interesting to see how SilkAir will operate these.

At the time of writing there are no major delays, one SilkAir flight from Changi to Male was delayed by around 1 hour, with some services this afternoon retimed by 15 to 20 minutes.

Other MAX operators at Changi

Although the ban applies to all 737 MAX operations in Singapore, including those of foreign carriers, very few other airlines actually fly the aircraft here.

China Southern Airlines, Shandong Airlines and Garuda Indonesia fly the 737 MAX 8 from Changi, however all of those carriers have already suspended MAX operations, while Thai Lion Air fly a single daily 737 MAX 9 service to Singapore, which will now have to use a different aircraft type.

737 MAX 8 (Boeing)
Besides SilkAir, very few other airlines currently fly the MAX to and from Changi. (Image: Boeing)

737 MAX timeline

December 2015: Boeing rolls out the first 737 MAX 8. Production is running to schedule, a rarity in aircraft development programs.

January 2016: The first test aircraft, a 737 MAX 8, successfully completes its first flight.

March 2017: The 737 MAX 9 has its first reveal from the hangar, an 8ft stretch of the MAX 8 accommodating an extra 20 passengers but boasting a similar range.

June 2017: Boeing officially announced the largest variant of the 737 ever produced – the 737 MAX 10. Designed to compete with the A321neo, it can seat up to 230 passengers and fly 3,300 nautical miles.

October 2017: SilkAir introduces its first 737 MAX 8 to commercial service, flying short hops to Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Pnomh Penh and Phuket before embarking on a brand new route at the end of the same month – Singapore to Hiroshima.

MI 7M8 2 (Boeing).jpg
SilkAir’s Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft have been flying safely since October 2017. (Photo: Boeing)

February 2018: The first 737 MAX 7 is rolled out. A much less popular variant, the smallest aircraft in the series has only booked around 60 out of the 5,000+ orders for the type. It can fly the furthest though, some 3,850 nautical miles in fully loaded passenger configuration.

October 2018: A Lion Air 737 MAX 8 crashes 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta.

November 2018: The first 737 MAX 200, a high-density version of the MAX 8 aimed at low cost carriers, was rolled out. Ryanair is set to accommodate 197 passengers in the aircraft, which features an additional emergency exit door to meet regulatory requirements.

March 2019: An Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 crashes six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa.

March 2019: Three aviation authorities, including the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, order the 737 MAX aircraft to be grounded. The FAA in the USA and the EASA in Europe still allow the aircraft to keep flying.

The effect on Scoot

As additional Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft are due for delivery to SilkAir this year, Boeing 737-800s are set to start being displaced to Scoot to support their operations as they expand and take on a raft of former SilkAir routes.

This plan now seems uncertain with Reuters reporting that Boeing’s modifications to the software of the 737 MAX could take “weeks”.

Scoot may be able to assist SilkAir to operate some of its flights, though we understand there are already manpower constraints and operational pressures arising from continued Boeing 787 reliability issues, potentially limiting the airline’s capacity.

Scoot 787 (Alec Wilson).jpg
Scoot still faces pressures of its own, including 787 engine issues. (Photo: Alec Wilson)

Summary

SilkAir will have a significant amount of shuffling around to do with its flight schedules as a result of this decision, with around 18% of the airlines fleet now grounded indefinitely.

One thing’s for sure – it could have been worse. SilkAir is planning to receive a new 737 MAX 8 aircraft from Boeing at a rate of around one per month this year, and will operate an eventual fleet of 37 such aircraft.

MI 7M8 (Boeing).jpg
SilkAir’s 737 MAX fleet is set to increase sharply, prior to a merger with Singapore Airlines. The airline will no doubt be thankful they only have six of them right now. (Photo: Boeing)

If this had happened once the aircraft type had made up a larger proportion of its fleet, the impact would have been far greater.

As it stands SilkAir will still be able to operate most of its flights using other aircraft, potentially cancelling some services where Singapore Airlines and/or Scoot also operate on the same route, such as to and from Bali, Chennai, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and Surabaya.

(Cover Photo: Boeing)

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