A Brief History Of The Most Famous Aircraft Groundings

Without a doubt the main aviation industry headline this year has been the worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX. Since March, hundreds of Boeing 737 MAX have been grounded, affecting airlines around the world. But it’s not the first time an aircraft type has been grounded because of safety concerns.

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX
The Boeing 737 MAX was grounded worldwide in March. Photo: SounderBruce via Wikimedia Commons

The Boeing 737 MAX grounding has dealt an enormous economic blow to the airlines which invested in the type. It was supposed to be the newest and best-performing addition to the Boeing 737 family.

But the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX has had an even bigger impact on Boeing itself. The manufacturer posted a record second quarter loss of $4.3 billion, and it doesn’t look like it will be out of the woods any time soon.

Safety is always the issue at the heart of aircraft groundings, so let’s take a look at some other notable groundings throughout commercial aviation history.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner (16 January – 19 April 2013)

The most recent major grounding of an aircraft type before the Boeing 737 MAX was another Boeing, the 787 Dreamliner.

On 16 January 2013, the FAA issued an emergency Airworthiness Directive for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner as a result of a number of incidents involving lithium-ion batteries.

On multiple occasions, batteries aboard Boeing 787s owned by Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airlines and United Airlines experienced faults. A couple of these incidents resulted in smoke and fires aboard the aircraft.

A JAL Boeing 787 Dreamliner
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was grounded because of battery safety issues. Photo: Sergey Kustov via Flickr

All 50 of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners which were operational at the time were grounded. During the grounding, it was discovered that the incidents were the result of thermal runaway in lithium-ion battery packs.

After a design alteration was implemented in the battery packs, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner regained its certification on April 19 2013.

The Concorde (16 August 2000 – November 2001)

The Concorde was an icon of the sky, but it was also plagued with controversy. Following the fatal crash of Air France Flight 4590 on 25 July 2000, suspicions were raised about the airworthiness of the type.

Air France Flight 4590 burst into flames during take-off, a sign that something was clearly very wrong. Investigations revealed that the Concorde’s fuel tanks were highly susceptible to rupturing, as had happened to Air France Flight 4590 when it ran over debris on the runway.

The grounding was lifted after Concorde’s fuel tanks were strengthened with a kevlar tank liner.

McDonnell Douglas DC-10 (6 June – 13 July 1979)

The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was one of the most popular passenger aircraft in its era. But it has also been involved in its fair share of deadly accidents over the years.

On 25 May 1979, American Airlines Flight 191 became the deadliest accident incident in US history.

An American Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10
The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was grounded following the crash of American Airlines Flight 191. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

American Airlines Flight 191 was being operated by a McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Shortly after takeoff, the left engine separated from the wing, ripping off a large section of the wing’s leading edge.

The aircraft then veered left and crashed, killing 273 people in total. The unusual nature of this incident caused the type to be grounded worldwide.

At first, investigators believed an inherent weakness in the engine mount was responsible for the accident, but it was later revealed to be a result of corner-cutting in the maintenance process.