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Aviation: Sanctions compromising safety?

On Friday December 14, a two months old Boeing 737-8 MAX operating Norwegian Air Shuttle flight 1933 departed from Dubai International Airport on a scheduled service to Oslo. Shortly after the aircraft settled into the cruise at 32,000ft an "oil associated fault" developed and the number one CFM International LEAP-1B engine had to be shut down, leaving just one operating powerplant.

A Norwegian Boeing 737-8MAX has been at Shiraz in Iran since it landed with an engine failure more than two weeks ago. (Edward Russell)

Immediate action was needed. With one engine out, the 737's Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) directed the pilots to "land at the nearest suitable airport", which happened to be Shiraz International (SYZ) in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The diversion proceeded without further incident and the 186 passengers disembarked into the terminal while Norwegian quickly dispatched a replacement aircraft to Shiraz. After an unexpected overnight stay in a hotel in Iran's fifth largest city (mandated primarily by the need to allow the crew of the 'rescue' aircraft to rest) the airline's customers were able to continue their journey. But the 737-8 MAX with the faulty engine, registered LN-BKE, is still at SYZ more than two weeks later.

Stuck in Iran

Aircraft have to make precautionary landings from time to time, and often these unplanned events cause little more impact than a delay while a local engineer fixes the problem or installs a new part. Unfortunately the man with a wrench in Shiraz couldn't repair the Norwegian 737 and an engine change is needed to enable the aircraft to leave. There's a problem though. Iran is subject to economic and trade sanctions because the USA classes the Middle Eastern country as an adversary. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) prohibits exporting of technology that could be used for military purposes, and indeed anything with more than 10% US content, to Iran. Specifically, the $15m LEAP-1B engine is included in US ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) which states that most items "with the capability to be used for either civilian or military purposes are considered 'dual use' and controlled under the Export Administration Regulations (EAR)." And that means a replacement engine cannot simply be shipped to Iran - as would have happened within days, if not hours, had the 737 landed almost anywhere else in the world.

Actually the US rules acknowledge that "specific licenses may be issued on a case-by-case basis for the exportation or re-exportation of goods, services, and technology to insure the safety of civil aviation and safe operation of U.S.-origin commercial passenger aircraft." So far though it seems that Norwegian has not received approval to move a replacement LEAP-1B engine to Shiraz, even though the only reason for doing so would be to install it on the 737 jet, which would then leave Iran along with the faulty engine.

How much longer this stalemate continues remains open to conjecture. But the problems Norwegian faces in recovering its almost new but grounded aircraft (which it is still making lease payments for - list price around $100m) leads to an interesting debate and a potentially legitimate concern.