Update for noon PT March 12: The European Union Aviation Safety Agency has suspended all flight operations of Boeing 737 MAX jets in EU countries in the wake of Sunday’s fatal plane crash in Ethiopia, even though the Federal Aviation Administration insisted the model was airworthy.
EASA said it issued its own airworthiness directive “as a precautionary measure,” and suspended all 737-8 and 737-9 flights into, out of or within the European Union.
The suspension follows this morning’s decision by the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority to suspend operations and ban 737 MAX jets from flying over British airspace until further notice.
“EASA is continuously analyzing the data as it becomes available,” the European Union’s safety agency said in a news release. “The accident investigation is currently ongoing, and it is too early to draw any conclusions as to the cause of the accident.”
A growing number of nations are suspending 737 MAX operations, in light of the fact that the 737 MAX 8 has been involved in two fatal accidents in the past five months. Sunday’s crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 near Addis Ababa killed all 157 people aboard, while the crash of a Lion Air 737-8 in Indonesia killed 189 last October.
Both accidents occurred just minutes after takeoff, and involved a catastrophic nose dive. Preliminary results from the Lion Air investigation suggest that an automated flight control system on the 737 MAX may have played a role, and the Ethiopian pilots reportedly told flight controllers before the crash that they were having “flight control problems.” But investigators say it’s too early to connect the two crashes.
On Monday, the FAA issued a notification saying that 737 MAX 8 jets remained airworthy, and no U.S. carriers have discontinued using the planes. But the European suspension is likely to raise the pressure on the FAA to take action or at least provide additional information.
Airlines in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Oman, Singapore, South Korea and other locales have also grounded 737 MAX jets, either in response to regulatory orders or on their own.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, joined California Democrat Dianne Feinstein in calling for suspension of U.S. flights.
Boeing is cooperating with investigators in Ethiopia. In a statement, the company said “we understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets,” but noted that the FAA “is not mandating any further action at this time.”
Boeing shares slumped more than 6 percent in afternoon trading, after a 5 percent drop on Monday.
Previously: The Federal Aviation Administration responded to concerns over Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets by reassuring airlines that the planes were airworthy, despite the fact that the model was involved in two catastrophic fatal accidents in the past five months.
All 157 people aboard a 737-8 were killed on Sunday, just minutes after the takeoff of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, heading from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Nairobi in Kenya. In its “Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community,” the FAA acknowledged on Monday that many reports have pointed out similarities to the crash of Lion Flight 610 last October, in which 189 people dled.
“However, this investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions,” the notification said.
Airlines in China, Ethiopia, Indonesia and several other countries grounded their 737 MAX 8 jets, pending verification that the planes are safe. It’s not yet clear what effect the FAA’s confirmation of airworthiness will have on those suspensions in service.
The FAA has dispatched experts to assist Ethiopian investigators on the ground, Experts from the National Transportation Safety Board, GE Aviation, Boeing and Kenya’s civil aviation agency are on the case as well.
“All data will be closely examined, and the FAA will take appropriate action if the data indicates the need to do so,” the FAA said.
Preliminary findings from the Lion Air crash investigation focused on an automatic control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. The system is meant as a safeguard to keep the plane from stalling under extreme aerodynamic conditions, but there were some signs that the system on the Lion Air 737-8 was receiving spurious data from an angle-of-attack sensor.
Monday’s notification reviewed actions taken by the FAA to ensure that Boeing’s prescribed safety procedures were adequate. The FAA also noted that some actions are still in process. For instance, Boeing is working on design changes to the MCAS system that will result in less reliance on “procedures associated with required pilot memory items.”
“The FAA anticipates mandating these design changes by AD [airworthiness directive] no later than April 2019,” the agency said. Boeing will also update its training requirements and flight crew manuals to reflect the design changes for 737-8 and 737-9 models, The FAA said.
Boeing issued its own statement touching upon the design changes and revisions in training procedures, as well as the recommended cockpit procedures for dealing with MCAS problems. “It is important to note that the FAA is not mandating any further action at this time,” Boeing said in the statement.
The Ethiopian plane’s two “black boxes” — the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder — have been recovered from crash debris, but it’s not yet clear how much data can be retrieved. One witness told The Associated Press that smoke was coming from the rear of the plane before it hit the ground.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urged the FAA to ground all 737 MAX 8 jets “until their safe use has been confirmed.” The FAA didn’t indicate it would take that step, but promised to take “immediate and appropriate action” if it identifies an issue that affects safety.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao echoed that view: “I want travelers to be assured that we are taking this seriously and monitoring latest developments.”
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, meanwhile, voiced confidence in the 737 MAX line, which is produced at the company’s factory in Renton, Wash.
“We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX and in the work of the men and women who design and build it,” Muilenburg said in an email to employees. “Since its certification and entry into service, the MAX family has completed hundreds of thousands of flights safely.”
He acknowledged that dealing with Sunday’s tragedy was “especially challenging” because it came so soon after the Lion Air crash.
“While difficult, I encourage everyone to stay focused on the important work we do,” Muilenburg wrote.
#breaking @boeing CEO to employees: Since its certification and entry into service, the MAX family has completed hundreds of thousands of flights safely. We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX and in the work of the men and women who design and build it. pic.twitter.com/csK8g9EJh6
— Kris Van Cleave (@krisvancleave) March 11, 2019
This is an updated version of a report that was first published at 5:32 p.m. PT March 11.