Alternatives to 737 MAX

April 2019 | Dios Kurniawan

As the latest development of the continuing 737 MAX saga, Garuda Indonesia has officially requested Boeing to cancel its order of remaining 737 MAX planes. A brave (or perhaps rather emotional) move, but 737 is the workhorse of the airline, thus cancelling 737 MAX order would leave Garuda’s fleet with a huge capacity gap.

What will be the alternative to 737 MAX? Without doubt, the closest competitor is Airbus A320neo. However, Airbus is already very busy fulfilling orders from airlines all around the world. There are 4,000+ A320s on order while the production capacity is less than 700 aircrafts per year. At this pace, if Garuda is to place order for A320neo today, the first delivery will happen by 2024-2025. By that time, Garuda’s existing Boeing 737 NGs will be in service for twenty years. They will be in a dire need for replacement.

With Airbus unable to meet the demand, practically there are only very few options left to go for acquiring new narrow body planes. Let’s see what the alternatives in the market are:

MC-21 (source: Irkut website)

Irkut MC-21
The Russian 160-200 seater jetliner is aimed to be a direct competitor to Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX. Equipped with American engines and state-of-the-art technology, it promises lower ownership and operating costs than the competition. MC-21 made its maiden flight in 2017, and is now in testing and certification process. Delivery to airlines is scheduled to happen in 2020. While MC-21 might be an interesting option, Russian products are generally hampered by poor reputation on support services.

C919 (source: Comac website)

Comac C919
The government of China has a bold ambition to propel its aviation industry to the global market, and Comac (a state-owned company) is tasked with a gargantuan responsibility to deliver the first large commercial twin jet. The company has been working on a 150-160 seater plane called the C919 since many years, and it will be the answer to American Boeing 737 and European Airbus A320. Similar to its Russian counterpart, it will be sold with Western engines but at the same time China is developing its own engine as well. First delivery to China Eastern Airlines is scheduled in 2021-2022 time frame. C919 is an untested airframe, and how reliable this aircraft performs compared to the Western competitors remains to be seen.

Without a clear substitute to Boeing 737 MAX in place, Garuda’s decision to cancel 737 MAX order would be devastating to its business if not carefully remediated. Would Garuda be so courageous to go for the Chinese or Russian alternatives?

Boeing 737 MAX is Unmistakably Unsafe

March 2019 | Dios Kurniawan

The tragic crash of Ethiopian flight ET302 which happened only five months after Lion Air JT610 disaster last year has made me convinced that Boeing 737 MAX has inherent problems. Both accidents are clearly linked and grounding all 737 MAXs globally is the right decision, if not a little late.

The last time history saw the grounding of an entire fleet of a newborn airliner model was in 1954, which took place after two brand new DeHavilland Comet jetliners had crashed within only few weeks. It was later determined that an engineering design flaw was behind both accidents. The design was fixed but nobody trusted Comet anymore.’

DeHavilland Comet (source: BAE Systems website)

We are still long way from drawing a conclusion as the 737 MAX investigation is still ongoing, but the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) which is the alleged culprit behind Lion Air’s crash last October, is again on the firing line.

MCAS was introduced by Boeing – somewhat quietly – as a result of the new engine placement and the increased overall engine size in the 737 MAX. Because the engines are installed slightly forward and above the wings, the new design changed aerodynamic characteristics of the plane, giving it a tendency to pitch the nose upwards during flight. The larger engine nacelle generates additional (unintended) lift in some circumstances. This problem does not exist in the classic 737 models.

The MAX engine nacelle generates additional lift in front of the Center of Gravity (drawing edited from: b737.org.uk)

MCAS prevents the pilots from pulling up the nose too much, especially during turns (in which the danger of losing lift significantly increases) by automatically adjusting the vertical stabilizer trim in the tail. In other words, Boeing 737 MAX is more prone to stall, and MCAS is there to compensate for it.

The new engine in MAX is larger, and is placed further from the wing (photo source: aviationpros.com)

The smaller engine in a classic 737 (photo source: airplane-pictures.net)

Boeing has been very silent with this new equipment, with many pilots saying that MCAS is not mentioned anywhere in the Pilot’s Manual.

Was MCAS the cause for the Ethiopian disaster? FlightRadar24 captured 6 minutes worth of data from the doomed Ethiopian flight (shown below) , and it showed that problem came into being almost immediately after the plane left the runway. The aircraft’s altitude, depicted in the blue line, saw erratic fluctuation less than two minutes after take off. This is similar to the Lion Air crash in October. In Lion Air’s case, pilots managed to keep the plane fly a little longer (12 minutes).


Airspeed and Altitude of The Ethiopian Flight (source: FlightRadar24)

Looking at the crash crater, the debris was concentrated in a relatively small area. It is a strong indication that the aircraft impacted the ground at high speed and at high angle. Something must have caused such a sudden nose-dive path. This is not a typical engine failure case, because even with both engines dead, the plane should still have enough forward momentum to keep it gliding for a while longer.


The crash crater indicates plane impacted the ground at high speed (photo source: CNN)

Again, this is consistent with the Lion Air crash.

MCAS is designed to engage when the aircraft is : 1) flying with auto pilot off; 2) flying with high AoA (angle-of-attack) or high bank angle; 3) not in landing or take off posture (flaps not extended). Under normal practice, pilots would fly the plane without auto pilot during take-off roll until it reaches approximately 3,000 feet of altitude, usually the first 2-3 minutes of the flight. Pilots must have retracted the flaps as well by that time. Therefore, all prerequisites for MCAS to engage had been fulfilled by the Ethiopian 737 flight before it crashed.

MCAS might have changed the stabilizer trim to push the nose down without being commanded by pilots because for whatever reason the computer thought the plane was going into a danger of stall. Pilots did not have enough time (or did not know how) to react properly and the plane nose-dived uncontrollably into the ground.

What might have triggered the MCAS to activate? MCAS could have received wrong data from onboard sensors that the AoA was too high or the bank angle too steep, or both.

There are a lot of similarities between the two fatal accidents, but the missing link is what might have caused the MCAS to activate – in the Lion Air case it was the AoA sensors that were supplying errorneous data, but in the Ethiopian case, it is still a mystery. This raises question in the design of MCAS, how the software reacts to incomplete or conflicting data.

Modern airliners are statistically very safe. However, today planes are increasingly dependent on onboard computer systems and software. Because software is getting more and more complex, testing a new software to find potential defects has as well become increasingly challenging. It is natural to say that we have doubt whether MCAS software has been tested thoroughly during certification process.

Boeing’s promise to release a “software upgrade” (which is actually a bug fix) not long after the Lion Air disaster highlights the fact Boeing knew there was a flaw in the MCAS. The question remains as to why the regulators did not instruct grounding of all 737 MAX right after Lion Air crash, simply awaiting for a second tragedy to happen?

Trip Report: FlyScoot

January 2018 | Dios Kurniawan

Last month during holiday season I decided to try Scoot, a budget airline subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. I have long heard a lot about this low-cost carrier but never had the chance to try it out. Scoot flies long-haul routes to Japan, China, Australia, even to Europe, and just recently transitioned to brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. I took the plunge and booked for a one-way trip to Sydney for a family holiday.

I bought five tickets (3 adults, 2 children) from Traveloka.com to take advantage of payment in Rupiah currency. Just like other no-frills carriers, there was no checked baggage allowance in the standard airfare, so I immediately purchased add-on 2x 25kg luggage allowance. Scoot also offers customers to buy seat upgrade for more legroom, which I did. I paid 15.5 million Rupiah in total, that’s approximately US$220 per person. Pretty good deal. If I had chosen to fly with Garuda Indonesia or Qantas, it would have cost me twice as much.

The caveat: it is not a direct flight, the trip requires a transfer at Changi Airport.

The itinerary says the first leg will be CGK-SIN departing at 8 PM on a single aisle Airbus A320, take a 3-hour layover at Changi Airport and then embark on a Boeing 787-9 at 1 AM for Sydney. The flight should arrive in the destination at around noon. Total journey: 12+ hours. Almost double as opposed to direct flights which normally take 7 hours. Not really convenient, but for saving lots of money I think I can live with that. This is a holiday trip anyway.

The Experience

Because of terrible traffic, we arrived at Soekarno-Hatta Airport just a few minutes before the check-in counter was about to close. There was no self-service kiosk, thus check-in process was done manually. Our luggage was checked-in too, and tagged for Sydney. Our bags would be taken care of during our transit in Singapore. Good.

The first leg to Singapore is served by an Airbus A320.

Food crumbs on the seat (photo: Dios K)

Boarding started on time, but when we finally found our seats (at the back of the plane, as always), we were welcome by food crumbs and scraps of other matter. It seemed as if the plane was not cleaned at all from the previous inbound flight from Singapore. How filthy.

The flight to Singapore itself was on-time. During the flight, I killed the time by reading and watching movies on my tablet. This is a budget carrier so no food is served, of course. Not much a problem because we are not hungry.

Our A320 landed in Changi at around 10 PM. We did not mind spending 2 hours in Changi Airport, considered as one of the world’s best airports. There were just a lot of things to do there. Food was good and plentiful, too.

The Dreamliner

Shortly after midnight, we headed down to the designated gate for our flight to Sydney. The gate area was fully packed with other passengers, more than 300 of them perhaps. According to Seatguru.com, Scoot configured its 787-9s for 340 economy and 35 business seats. By looking at the crowded waiting room, I guess all seats for tonight’s flight would be fully occupied.

Waiting rrom is crowded (photo: Dios K)

When we boarded the Dreamliner, we were greeted by bright yellow interior lighting. Not a really nice touch especially it’s in the middle of the night, I prefer something more soothing to the eyes.

The Dreamliner (photo: Dios K)

Seats are surprisingly quite comfortable. Seat width is just right, legroom is abundant. Unlike the first flight from Jakarta, this aircraft is in a much cleaner state, too.

Leg room is just fine (photo: Dios K)

This last leg to Sydney would take 8 hours. You just have to figure out what you will do without in-flight entertainment during such a long flight. There is no TV monitor in front of me. Just plain plastic.

I tried to look at the menu provided in the seat pocket. While the food looked tempting – especially the Nasi Lemak – but the $12 price simply turned me down. Too expensive! Besides I have already grabbed some McDonald’s while at Changi. Scoot officially prohibits outside food to be consumed onboard, but luckily that night the flight attendants did not seem to enforce the policy.

Menu is tempting but the price is not (photo: Dios K)

However, for a long flight such as this, there is no way we can survive without water. I filled up my water bottle in the terminal before boarding but that was not enough for the whole family. So during the flight I purchased a small bottle of mineral water, which cost me S$4. That’s a rip-off! But well, I had no choice.

There was no in-flight entertainment except onboard Wi-Fi which was offerred at exorbitant prices: $18 for 100MB. No way Hose! I ended up watching movies stored in my laptop and then sleeping for the rest of the flight. Oh yes, Scoot does not provide blanket but I have prepared mine in my backpack. No pillows either.

The flight was smooth, weather was good and my kids slept pretty well. I suppose the lower altitude setting of cabin pressure in Dreamliner was playing a significant role in making the journey more pleasant. Unlike any other red-eye flight I have ever experienced, this time I felt much more fresh.

Arrival at Sydney Airport (photo: Dios K)

We landed in Sydney at noon and the deboarding process was swift. We had no problem collecting our luggage in the terminal.

The Verdict

Scoot is an interesting option for travelling to Australia if you are on a budget and you don’t mind the much longer journey time. The first leg from Jakarta was less satisfactory because of the dirty seats, but other than that we were quite happy with our experience. Will I fly with Scoot again? Certainly. The service is not bad, Dreamliner planes are comfortable and most importantly I can keep my wallet happy.