Ethiopian Air Crash Puts Spotlight Again On Boeing 737 MAX; China, Indonesia Ground Planes
[Updated March 11, 8:30 a.m. ET]
A Boeing 737 MAX 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed Sunday shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, raising fresh questions about the safety of the new version of Boeing’s bestselling aircraft following a heavily scrutinized crash in Indonesia.
Chinese authorities didn’t wait for details to emerge from the crash investigation, ordering domestic airlines Monday morning to ground their 737 MAX 8 planes. Indonesia followed suit later in the day.
Ethiopian Airlines said there were no survivors among the 149 passengers and 8 crew members on board ET Flight 302. The plane’s vertical speed was unstable after takeoff at 8:38 a.m. local time, satellite data show, according to the aircraft tracking service FlightRadar24. The pilot had reported difficulties to air traffic control and requested permission to return to the airport, Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam said at a press conference. Contact with the plane was lost at 8:44 a.m.
Tewolde said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the accident. “It was a brand-new airplane and well maintained,” Tewolde said. The airline took delivery of it Nov. 15.
The accident follows the crash of a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX 8 in October in Indonesia that claimed 189 lives. A preliminary report from Indonesian crash investigators suggests that the plane’s pilots struggled with an automatic anti-stall system that appears to have engaged due to erroneous readings from an angle of attack sensor, pushing the plane into a dive.
Boeing has faced accusations that it failed to properly inform pilots and airlines of the anti-stall controls, which are new to the 737 MAX. Boeing has said that pilot manuals already contained instructions on how to override other automatic systems that could push the aircraft’s nose down.
The MAX is Boeing’s fastest-selling model yet, with 5,011 orders as of the end of January and 350 delivered since its entry into service in 2017. Its main feature is a new engine, the LEAP-1B, made by a joint venture of General Electric and Safran, that helps make the plane 14% more fuel-efficient than the previous version.
Boeing sought to avoid design changes with the 737 MAX that would lead the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to decide that pilots of the prior version would require new training to fly it. Nonetheless, the new engine is larger and sits higher up and further forward on the wing, and Boeing decided that it needed new control software to counter the risk that the plane could stall when making tight turns at low speeds.
The little evidence available about the Ethiopian Airlines crash gives no indication as to whether the anti-stall system played a role.
Ethiopian Flight 302 was bound for the Kenyan capital of Nairobi carrying passengers from more than 30 countries. The airline said the passenger manifest included 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians, 9 Ethiopians and 8 each from China, Italy and the United States. Among the dead were a number of United Nations staffers.
The FAA scores Ethiopian aviation regulators as meeting international safety standards and the state-owned airline is well-regarded by safety experts. It last had a fatal crash in 2010, when a Boeing 737 plunged into the Mediterranean after takeoff from Beirut, killing all 90 on board. Investigators pointed to pilot error as the probable cause.
Boeing said in a statement that it was prepared to provide technical assistance to the investigation into the crash of ET 302. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending four staffers to assist Ethiopian authorities.
The quick decision by Chinese aviation authorities to ground the MAX 8 is a worrisome development for Boeing and a sharp break from usual practice, in which countries wait for a recommendation from aviation regulators in the country that certified the aircraft, in this case the FAA. China is the world’s fastest-growing aviation market and Boeing and Airbus are fighting for market share there. Chinese and Hong Kong airlines and lessors have taken delivery of 77 737 MAX aircraft through the end of January, with 231 more on order.
Indonesia is also a key market: Lion Air and Garuda Indonesia have 236 outstanding orders for the 737 MAX.
The China Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement that it was acting “in line with the management principle of zero tolerance for safety hazards,” citing the fact that both the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes occurred in the take-off phase and with new aircraft.
Cayman Airways also said Sunday evening that it was suspending operations of its two 737 MAX 8 planes.