14 march 2019 Updated
US aircraft manufacturer Boeing has recommended its entire global fleet of 737 MAX aircraft be grounded, after evidence collected from the scene of the fatal Ethiopian Airlines crash was made available to aviation authorities.
- Boeing backs move by Donald Trump and FAA to ground all 737 MAX aircraft
- FAA says new satellite data given to the US, Canada and other authorities prompted the decision
- World’s biggest plane maker is facing its most serious crisis in years
The Ethiopian crash on Sunday killed 157 people, and was the second disaster involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8 in less than five months.
In October, the unexplained crash of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Indonesia killed 189 people.
The world’s biggest plane maker is facing its most serious crisis in years, as the decades-old 737 series, a plane cited as a global workhorse, takes a severe blow to its prestige.
America’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued a statement overnight announcing it had ordered the grounding of all Boeing 737 MAX aircraft operated by US airlines or in US territory.
The agency said new, enhanced satellite tracking data and physical evidence on the ground linked the Ethiopian jet’s movements to those of an Indonesian Lion Air flight.
“That evidence aligns the Ethiopian flight closer to Lion Air, what we know happened to Lion Air,” said Daniel Elwell, acting FAA administrator.
He would not detail the evidence found on the ground, saying the FAA was a party to the ongoing investigation.
US-based aircraft-tracking firm Aireon provided satellite data to the FAA, Transport Canada and several other authorities, company spokesperson Jessie Hillenbrand said.
Aireon’s space-based system can monitor data from aircraft equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders.
The agency’s statement was issued shortly after US President Donald Trump ordered that the planes be grounded, after earlier commenting that planes were becoming “too complex to fly”.
Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Tewolde Gebremariam told the Wall Street Journal the pilot had reported problems shortly after take-off, but did not indicate a bird strike or any other external factors were involved.
“He reported back to air traffic controllers and he said he has flight control problems, so he wants to return back and clearance was given to him to return back,” he said.
Boeing notes ‘abundance of caution’
Boeing, which maintained that its planes were safe to fly, said in a statement that it supported the FAA’s move to temporarily ground 737 MAX flights.
“Boeing has determined — out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety — to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft.”
This is the second time the FAA has halted flights of a Boeing plane in six years.
In 2013, it grounded the 787 Dreamliner because of problems with smoking batteries.
Coincidentally, Ethiopian Airlines was the first carrier to resume Dreamliner flights once the grounding was lifted.
Shares of the Seattle-based company, which were up earlier in the session, fell 2 per cent to $US370.48 ($522.15).
Budget carrier Norwegian Air said it would seek compensation from Boeing over the grounding of its fleet, with CNN reporting that it was the first airline to do so.
US airlines that operate the 737 MAX including Southwest Airlines, American Airlines Group and United Airlines, said they were working to re-book passengers.
Southwest is the world’s largest operator of the 737 MAX 8 with 34 jets, while American flies 24 MAX 8s and United 14 MAX 9s.
Although there is no proof of any link between the incidents, fears about the jet’s safety have spooked passengers.
Travel website Kayak was making changes to let customers exclude specific aircraft types from searches, and booking sites were looking to reroute passengers.
The grounding was welcomed by American air workers, and the announcement came hours after the US Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) called on the US to ground the planes in question.
Ethiopian black box sent to France
Canada also grounded 737 MAX jets on Wednesday, also citing the data used by the FAA.
Aireon’s data is considered less detailed than that in black boxes, which look at systems running inside the plane.
Germany’s federal agency responsible for investigating air accidents said it would not analyse the damaged black boxes from the Ethiopian Airlines plane, casting uncertainty over the process of finding out what may have caused the disaster.
The FAA said the black boxes were headed to France later on Wednesday.
The chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Democrat Peter DeFazio, called for a probe into why the 737 MAX received certification to fly.
“There must be a rigorous investigation into why the aircraft, which has critical safety systems that did not exist on prior models, was certified without requiring additional pilot training,” he said.
Two Boeing 737 MAX 8 pilots reported nosedives after engaging autopilot in 2018, data reveals
Airline pilots on at least two US flights have reported that an automated system seemed to cause their Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes to tilt down suddenly.
- Two pilots separately reported to NASA that they suspected automated controls in their Boeing 737 MAX planes were faulty
- Both planes suddenly tilted mid-flight but were quickly corrected
- North American carriers have continued to fly the 737 MAX, despite groundings elsewhere
In reports filed last year in a database compiled by NASA, the pilots said that soon after engaging the autopilot on their planes, the nose tilted down sharply.
In both cases they recovered quickly after disconnecting the autopilot, they said.
The problem as described by the pilots, however, did not appear related to a new automated anti-stall system that was suspected of contributing to a deadly October crash in Indonesia.
Americans hold out
The MAX 8 is at the centre of a widening ban — now involving more than 40 countries — following a second fatal crash, this time in Ethiopia, in less than five months.
In the US, however, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and respective carriers had continued to permit the planes to fly.
Overnight US President Donald Trump said modern planes were “too complex to fly”, and a Reuters source claimed the US President spoke to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg after his comments.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines operate the 737 MAX 8, and United Airlines flies a slightly larger version, the MAX 9.
All three carriers vouched for the safety of MAX aircraft on Wednesday.
Groundings by country:
- European Union
- New Zealand
- United Arab Emirates
- United Kingdom
- United States
The pilot reports were voluntary and did not publicly reveal the names of the pilots, the airlines or the location of the incidents.
It was unclear whether the accounts led to any action by the FAA or the pilots’ airlines.
In one report, an airline captain said that immediately after putting the plane on autopilot the co-pilot called out “descending”, which was followed by an audio cockpit warning, “Don’t sink, don’t sink!”
The captain immediately disconnected the autopilot and resumed climbing.
“With the concerns with the MAX 8 nose down stuff, we both thought it appropriate to bring it to your attention,” the captain wrote.
The captain added that the “best guess from me is airspeed fluctuation” due to a brief weather system overwhelming the plane’s automation.