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US Finally Bans Boeing 737 MAX 8 Citing Safety Concerns, Airline Industry Scrambles

The US has joined the rest of the world in grounding Boeing 727 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft following international pressure due to a fatal air accident involving the MAX 8 in Ethiopia that claimed 157 people on board.

“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 and planes associated with that line,” Trump announced at the White House on Wednesday.

As early as Wednesday morning, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had said there was no reason to ban the Max 8 aircraft, despite the Ethiopian crash being the second accident involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8 in the last five months.

An emergency order issued by the FAA later on Wednesday said that similarities in the Ethi­o­pia and Indonesia tragedies “warrant further investigation of the possibility of a shared cause for the two incidents that needs to be better understood and addressed.”

On March 10, Ethiopian Airline flight ET 302 crashed after taking off from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, Kenya, killing 157 on board. In October 2018, Lion Air flight JT 610 flying from Jakarta to Tanjung Pinang plunged in the Tanjung Karawang waters 13 minutes after takeoff, claiming 189 lives. The Lion Air incident called for an intense inspection over the airliner’s internal control system.

Both incidents have similarities as both airline companies operated Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft and both planes crashed just minutes after takeoff.

Meanwhile, the investigation of the Ethiopian Airlines crash is proceeding as the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and data flight recorder (DFR) have already been recovered.

Countries Around the World Ground Boeing MAX 8 and 9

More than 50 countries have so far grounded all MAX 8 and 9 jets, including four Central and Latin American nations; Panama, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia as CNBC reported.

Other countries include Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, China, Australia, South Korea, Fiji, Cayman Island, South Africa, India, and Hong Kong. Japan and Russia have finally joined a swath of countries by suspending the MAX 8, as Reuters and AFP reported.

Brazil was the first Latin American country to ground the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft. In a statement, Brazil’s air transportation regulator, ANAC, said it had made the decision after discussing with the U.S authorities, Boeing, and local airline companies. Brazil’s Gol Airlines operates the MAX 8 aircraft for 3,000 of its flights.

Major European countries such as Germany, France, and the UK followed suit by grounding all MAX 8 jets. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has issued an order to ban Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets from crossing European’s airspace.

In its official statement, the EASA said it is still analyzing the data related to the Ethiopian Airlines crash as the investigation is still ongoing “and it is too early to draw any conclusions as to the cause of the accident.”

What’s Wrong With the Boeing 737 MAX 8?

A Politico analysis of the FAA’s incident data found that pilots in the U.S. reported safety concerns about the U.S.-manufactured jet on five different occasions since the end of last year.

Some of the reported incidents involved the aircraft’s anti-stall system, which is being investigated as a contributing factor to the crash of Lion Air JT 610. The system is called the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) and is aimed at preventing planes from experiencing aerodynamic stall conditions.

One report from November of 2018 said the aircraft’s nose suddenly pitched down within seconds of autopilot being engaged during takeoff. Another incident in the U.S. also in November of 2018 detailed a pilot who encountered problems when he activated the autopilot after leveling off from takeoff. The plane’s co-pilot suddenly received warnings saying “Descending” followed by “Don’t Sink, Don’t Sink.” When the autopilot was deactivated, the aircraft could fly normally.

On November 7, 2018, the FAA issued an emergency directive regarding how to handle problems with the anti-stall technology, however, one report filed with the FAA complained the directive was insufficient.

According to Politico, one pilot wrote, “it does nothing to address the systems issues” and noted that the flight manuals had yet to be updated with that information at that time.

“I think it is unconscionable that a manufacturer, the FAA, and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models,” the pilot wrote.

“The fact that this airplane requires such jury rigging to fly is a red flag. Now we know the systems employed are error prone — even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place, and failure modes.”

“I am left to wonder: what else don’t I know? The Flight Manual is inadequate and almost criminally insufficient. All airlines that operate the MAX must insist that Boeing incorporate ALL systems in their manuals,” the pilot added.

A separate incident report from October 2018 complained that autothrottles in the Max 8 did not work properly when being activated. The pilot realized the problem quickly and adjusted the plane’s drive manually to continue to climb.

MAX 8 Throws Airline Industry Into Disarray

The grounding of Boeing 737 MAX 8 has raised numerous concerns about air transportation safety and how the jet’s suspension will impact the airline industry.

Boeing’s share fell 11 percent in the first two days following the international outcry to ban the Max 8 temporarily.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co, the largest operator of the 737 MAX in the world with 34 jets, said it was experiencing unusually high call volumes and had canceled 39 MAX flights.

American Airlines Group Inc, with 24 MAX 8s, planned to cancel around 85 flights per day as a result of the ban, while servicing some of those flights with other aircraft such as the 737-800.

Air Canada, the country’s largest carrier, which operated 24 MAX jets had a message on its customer service line saying that because of “unforeseen circumstances,” call volumes temporarily exceeded its capacity to answer or place calls on hold.

Air Canada could not be reached for comment on Thursday. In a statement on Wednesday, the Montreal-based carrier said it operated 75 737MAX flights daily out of a total schedule of approximately 1,600 daily flights system-wide, representing less than six percent of the network’s total flying.

WestJet Airlines, Canada’s second-largest carrier which operated 13 MAX jets, said it canceled 11 flights on Thursday impacting 1,200 passengers, but would re-book more than three-quarters of them by the end of the day.

According to estimates from the IBA Group, the direct costs to airlines for suspending the MAX would be around $150,000 per day per leased aircraft grounded. Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 planes will remain grounded for “weeks” at a minimum until a software upgrade could be tested and installed in all of the planes, U.S. lawmakers said on Thursday.

The Ethiopian Airline crash is a big blow to Boeing as the MAX is the latest version of its signature 737, which together with Airbus’ A320 are the two most sold commercial aircraft in history.

According to Michel Merluzeau, Director of Aerospace & Defense Market Analysis, MAX is a vital program for Boeing’s future as it is expected to account for 64 percent of Boeing’s production by 2032.

France’s Airbus A320 may be the 737 MAX’s only competitor, but Airbus alone cannot meet worldwide demand due to the logistical inability to fulfill orders from 5,800 companies. Despite increasing its production rate, it is unlikely that Airbus can manufacture more than 725 aircraft a year.

Boeing 737 MAX 8 attracts low-cost air carriers given its fuel efficiency. It also reduces carbon emissions by 20 percent and was built to have a 40% reduction in noise from previous models.

According to data from The Telegraph per September 30, 2018, 70 airline companies ordered the MAX 8 aircraft. Southwest Airlines, for example, ordered 280 units of MAX 8 jets.

Boeing has been working to improve its software since the Lion Air crash, in hopes of preventing a similar tragedy from happening again. Now with the Ethiopian crash, consumer willingness to fly in the 737 MAX is shaken and will depend on Boeing identifying a clear problem to rebuild consumer confidence.

Yasmeen Rasidi

Yasmeen is a writer and political science graduate of the National University, Jakarta. She covers a variety of topics for Citizen Truth including the Asia and Pacific region, international conflicts and press freedom issues. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia and GeoStrategist previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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