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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.

Adverse impact of sanctions?

Hundreds of aircraft pass through Iranian airspace every day, most en route from the Middle East to Europe. There aren't many alternative routes - Iran, Iraq, Syria or a much longer leg over Saudi Arabia. Incidents demanding a diversion are extremely rare but if one becomes necessary very few aircrew will compromise the safety of their aircraft, their passengers or themselves to prolong a flight. No one wants to be in an aircraft with one of its two engines shut down for longer the minimum because there is a risk that the same problem - or a different fault - could affect the remaining powerplant.

When the problem with the number one engine installed on LN-BKE arose, the pilots quite rightly elected to divert to SYZ in preference to turning back towards the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait, or continuing on towards Turkey. Their aircraft was certified for ETOPS (long-range operations away from a diversion airport) but the QRH stated that if an engine has to be shut down a landing should take place at the nearest suitable airport. Suitable is defined as "an adequate airport with weather reports, forecasts or combination thereof, indicating that the weather conditions will be at or above minima... and field condition reports indicate that a safe landing can be accomplished during the period of intended operation." That left little room for doubt. Had the crew diverted to anywhere further away and had another problem arisen en route, the consequences could have been catastrophic.

The 737-8MAX's extended stay in Shiraz is costing Norwegian a great deal of money - it is paying for an aircraft it cannot use and is earning no revenue. At some point in the future another flight - probably not another Norwegian 737 - will need to divert while over Iran. Unfortunately economic pressures occasionally lead to inappropriate decision making, even in the airline business. Due to what has happened in Shiraz The Aviation Oracle is concerned that a few flight deck crew might come under pressure to continue to a more open country rather than land immediately. A longer diversion would be more convenient for the passengers, could make it easier to affect repairs, and might cost less, but could also compromise the safety of everyone on board.

Whether we agree with specific sanctions or not, none of them should be allowed to affect aviation safety. Everyone - including the US government - needs to temporarily suspend their political and ideological goals, and allow a replacement LEAP-1B engine to be moved to Shiraz as quickly as possible.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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