Japan and U.S. join rest of the world in grounding Boeing 737 Max jets as crash data raise concerns

AFP-JIJI, Reuters, JIJI, Bloomberg

The ban on the Boeing 737 Max aircraft became worldwide on Wednesday after U.S. President Donald Trump joined Canada and other countries in grounding the aircraft amid intense pressure about the safety concerns.

Demands grew for urgent answers over the safety of the Boeing 737 Max 8 as Ethiopian and U.S. authorities searched for the cause of Sunday’s deadly crash near the capital of the African nation. That crash followed a fatal accident in Indonesia in October.

“We’re going to be issuing an emergency order of prohibition to ground all flights of the 737 Max 8 and the 737 Max 9 planes,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “The safety of the American people and all peoples is our paramount concern.”

The Federal Aviation Administration said the decision was based on new evidence gathered at the crash site near Addis Ababa as well as “newly refined satellite data.”

In Tokyo, the transport ministry said Thursday that it too had banned flights by Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 aircraft from its airspace. Japanese airlines themselves do not use the aircraft, the ministry said, and foreign airlines had already stopped using the aircraft for flights to and from Japan.

Before the U.S. decision on Wednesday, Canada joined the long list of countries to ban the plane from flying in its airspace.

Many airlines had already voluntarily taken it out of service.

The FAA said it will continue to work with investigators to determine the cause of the crash. Ethiopia said it would send the black boxes to Europe for analysis.

“Hopefully they will come up with an answer, but until they do the planes are grounded,” Trump said of the planes.

Boeing chief Dennis Muilenburg said he supported the U.S. decision “out of an abundance of caution” but continued to have “full confidence” in the safety of the plane.

The company continues its efforts “to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again,” Muilenburg said in a statement.

Preliminary accounts of the Ethiopian Airlines flight appear similar to the Lion Air crash in October, which were echoed in concerns registered by U.S. pilots on how the Max 8 behaves.

At least four American pilots made reports following the Lion Air crash, all complaining the aircraft suddenly pitched downward shortly after takeoff, according to documents on the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a voluntary incident database maintained by NASA.

In two anonymous reports on flights just after the Lion Air crash, pilots disconnected the autopilot and corrected the plane’s trajectory.

One said the flight crew reviewed the incident “at length … but can’t think of any reason the aircraft would pitch nose-down so aggressively.”

It was unclear if U.S. transportation authorities review the database or investigate the incidents. However, the FAA said this week it had mandated Boeing update its flight software and training on the aircraft.

Questions on the Lion Air crash have honed in on an automated stall prevention system, the MCAS, which is designed to automatically point the nose of the plane downward if it is in danger of stalling.

According to the flight data recorder, the pilots of Lion Air Flight 610 struggled to control the aircraft as the automated MCAS system repeatedly pushed the plane’s nose down following takeoff.

The Ethiopian Airlines pilots reported similar difficulties before their aircraft plunged into the ground.

Boeing came in for criticism after the Lion Air crash for allegedly failing to adequately inform 737 pilots about the functioning of the anti-stalling system.

The first concrete evidence of a possible link between the two crashes came from space. A new satellite network capable of tracking planes in high fidelity captured the flight path of the 737 Max that crashed Sunday. That was critical in persuading the U.S. to join the rest of the world in grounding the jet, according to industry and regulatory officials.The erratic, six-minute flight of the Ethiopian Airlines plane convinced the Federal Aviation Administration that it was close enough to what preceded the Oct. 29 crash of another Max off the coast of Indonesia to warrant concern.

The Lion Air plane had experienced more than two dozen sharp dips shortly after takeoff. Rather than switching off the motor triggering the dives — a procedure pilots on all models of the 737 are taught to memorize — the Lion Air crew continued counteracting it with their controls until it dove into the sea.

The Ethiopian plane apparently made the same highly unusual descents followed by climbs.

After reviewing the data, “It became clear — to all parties, actually — that the track of the Ethiopian Airlines flight was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight,” EPA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell said Wednesday.

Canada’s Transport Minister Marc Garneau — a former astronaut — also cited satellite tracking on Wednesday as the reason his country joined more than 50 other nations in grounding the 737 Max models.

The data were provided by Aireon LLC, which was formed in 2012 by Iridium Communications Inc. and Nav Canada, a nonprofit company that guides air traffic in Canada. After years of development and the launches of 66 satellites into orbit, Aireon will introduce a new commercial flight-tracking service in coming weeks.

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam on Sunday said the captain on the flight, Yared Mulugeta Getachew, 29, was an experienced aviator with more than 8,000 flight hours.

Speaking to CNN on Wednesday, Tewolde said there were “significant similarities” between the Lion Air and ET 302 crashes: “There are a lot of questions to be answered on the airplane.” He later called for all Boeing 737 Max models to be grounded.

In Ethiopia, distraught families wept and lit candles as they visited the deep black crater where the plane smashed into a field, killing 157 passengers and crew.

Ethiopian Airlines said it would decide by Thursday which country would examine the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder recovered from the ill-fated Flight ET 302, spokesman Asrat Begashaw said.

“We are going to send it to Europe but the country is not specified yet,” Asrat said.

The airline said Ethiopia does not have the equipment to read the black box data that could provide crucial information about what happened.

The Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 was less than 4 months old when it went down six minutes into a flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi on Sunday, disintegrating on impact.

The Max series is Boeing’s fastest-selling model, with more than 5,000 orders placed to date from about 100 customers. There are about 350 Max 8s in service around the world.

Thomas Anthony, head of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California, said increasing automation of planes means crews have less experience flying manually.

“So it’s not just a mechanical, it is not just a software problem, but it is a problem of communication and trust,” he said.