Year in Review: Safety concerns over new jets blighted Cayman Airways

Cayman Airways' new Boeing 737 MAX 8 arrives at Owen Roberts International Airport in November last year. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

They were supposed to be the planes that took Cayman Airways into the future. Hundreds of onlookers crowded the airport perimeter, standing on cars or pressing their faces against the mesh fence for a better view when the first Boeing 737 MAX 8 touched down in November of last year.

It was the first of four new modern, fuel-efficient jets, fresh off the Boeing production line, that would replace the island’s ageing fleet, opening up new routes to the west coast of the US. The second arrived in March, but this time there was little fanfare, with serious concerns emerging about the safety of the aircraft after two major crashes involving the model in the space of six months.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 went down shortly after take off on March 10, killing all 157 people on board. That incident followed a Lion Air crash that went down shortly after take off  in Indonesia, killing all 189 on board.

In the immediate aftermath of the Ethiopia crash, Cayman Airways was one of the first airlines in the world to proactively ground the planes.

The airline’s CEO Fabian Whorms told the Cayman Compass at the time, “We have had two events that appear similar with brand-new planes and until we know more, we are not flying them.”

A planned ‘christening’ of the second 737 MAX 8 was postponed and both planes have remained grounded ever since.

Banned from the skies
Soon after the Ethiopia crash, several other airlines and regulatory bodies followed suit, banning the planes from the skies. Throughout the year, investigations have been ongoing to determine the exact cause of the two incidents. The crashes were eventually blamed on a software system, called MCAS, which is designed to prevent a plane from stalling when a take-off angle is too steep.

Boeing is now working to rectify the flaws in the hope that the planes will be cleared to fly early next year.

Financial impact
In the interim, Cayman Airways, like other operators that have invested in the MAX 8s, is feeling the consequences.

Instead of running its international schedule with four jets – two new 160-seat MAX 8s and two older 122-seat 737‑300 jets – the airline has been operating with three 737‑300s.

Whorms told the Compass in July that the airline had been forced to reduce flights and limit the number of seats available on certain flights. He said the new non-stop route to Denver had been able to run, but with a significantly reduced passenger load.

The exact dollar cost to Cayman Airways is unknown, but the airline fell $6.5 million short of it budget targets this year and is expected to make losses of approximately
$9 million next year, even after government’s contributions.

Several airlines are seeking compensation from Boeing, and the Wall Street Journal reported that the manufacturer will set aside around $5 billion to compensate airlines that have suffered because of the prolonged grounding of the planes.

Earlier this month, SouthWest Airlines, which has 34 MAX 8s in its fleet, announced that it had reached a deal for a compensation package with the manufacturer.

Asked about whether Cayman would be pursuing compensation earlier this year, Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said ‘all options’ were on the table.

What’s next?
Regulators are expected to clear the MAX 8 to fly early in the new year. Once US and EU regulator make the move, the Cayman Islands Aviation Authority is expected to follow suit.
Captain Dave Scott, vice president of flight operations for Cayman Airways, told legislators during budget hearings last month that he had personally flown a simulator with the upgraded system and was confident it was safe.

“I have no doubt that when the aircraft is recertified, it will probably be one of the safest aircraft in the sky,” Scott said. “I have not heard one of our pilots … say he would [not] go and fly it tomorrow.”

How quickly the public confidence is restored remains to be seen.

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