EU suspends Boeing 737 MAX flights, U.S. senators suggest similar move

ADDIS ABABA/PARIS (Reuters) – The European Union’s aviation safety regulator on Tuesday suspended all flights in the bloc by Boeing 737 MAX and the U.S. Senator who chairs a panel overseeing aviation suggested the United States take similar action following a crash in Ethiopia that killed 157 people.

Britain, Germany and France joined a wave of suspensions of the aircraft in the wake of Sunday’s crash, and was swiftly followed by a similar decision by India, piling pressure on the United States to follow suit.

Boeing, the world’s biggest planemaker, which has seen billions of dollars wiped off its market value the crash, said it understood the countries’ actions but retained “full confidence” in the 737 MAX and had safety as its priority.

It also said the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had not demanded any further action related to 737 MAX operations.

The cause of the crash, which followed another disaster with a 737 MAX five months ago in Indonesia that killed 189 people, remains unknown.

There is no evidence yet whether the two crashes are linked. Plane experts say it is too early to speculate on the reason for the crash. Most are caused by a unique chain of human and technical factors.

In an unusual move, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it was suspending all flights in the bloc of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 and 9 jets.

“Based on all available information, EASA considers that further actions may be necessary to ensure the continued airworthiness of the two affected models,” it said in a statement.

However, it shied away from the even rarer step of pulling the safety certification for the plane itself, focusing instead on the softer process of restricting its use by airlines. The move leaves some leeway for the U.S. FAA to decide its own approach.

Flight ET 302 came down in a field soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa, creating a fireball in a crater. It may take weeks or months to identify all the victims, who include a prize-winning author, a soccer official and a team of humanitarian workers.

Boeing shares fell 6.1 percent on Tuesday bringing losses to 11.15 percent since the crash, the steepest two-day loss for the stock since July 2009. The drop has lopped $26.65 billion off Boeing’s market value.

SENATE HEARING

The United States has said it remains safe to fly the planes but U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee on aviation and space, said on Tuesday it would be “prudent” for the United States “to temporarily ground 737 Max aircraft until the FAA confirms the safety of these aircraft and their passengers.”

Cruz said he intends to convene a hearing to investigate the crashes.

Two other senators, Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Elizabeth Warren, called on the FAA to temporarily ground the 737 MAX.

President Donald Trump also fretted over modern airplane design.

“Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT,” Trump tweeted, lamenting that product developers always sought to go an unnecessary step further when “old and simpler” was superior.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!” he added.

He did not refer to Boeing or recent accidents, but his comments echoed an automation debate that partially lies at the center of a probe into October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia. Investigators are examining the role of a software system designed to push the plane down, alongside airline training and repair standards.

Boeing says it plans to update the software in coming weeks.

A page of a flight crew operations manual is seen at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Trump, concerned about the Ethiopia crash, spoke to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg on Tuesday and received assurances that the aircraft was safe, two people briefed on the call said.

China, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and others have also temporarily suspended the 737 MAX.

The decision by some countries to ban not only arrivals and departures but flights crossing through their airspace surprised some regulatory sources even in regions banning the plane, since overflights are usually protected by international law.

VICTIMS FROM 30 NATIONS

Given problems of identification at the charred disaster site, Ethiopian Airlines said it would take at least five days to start handing remains to families.

The victims came from more than 30 different nations, and included nearly two dozen U.N. staff.

“We are Muslim and have to bury our deceased immediately,” Noordin Mohamed, a 27-year-old Kenyan businessman whose brother and mother died, told Reuters.

“Losing a brother and mother in the same day and not having their bodies to bury is very painful,” he said in the Kenyan capital Nairobi where the plane had been due.

Anxiety was also evident among some travelers, who rushed to find out from social media and travel agents whether they were booked to fly on 737 MAX planes.

If the black box recordings found at the Ethiopian crash site are undamaged, the cause of the crash could be identified quickly, although it typically takes a year for a full probe.

The new variant of the 737, the world’s most-sold modern passenger aircraft, is viewed as the likely workhorse for global airlines for decades and 4,661 more are on order.

Slideshow (15 Images)

Over 40 percent of the MAX fleet has been grounded, Flightglobal said, though many airlines still use older jets.

Still, major customers including top airlines from North America kept flying the 737 MAX. Southwest Airlines Co, which operates the largest fleet of 737 MAX 8s, said it remained confident in the safety of all its Boeing planes.

Former FAA accident investigator Mike Daniel said the decision by regulators to ground the planes was premature. “To me it’s almost surreal how quickly some of the regulators are just grounding the aircraft without any factual information yet as a result of the investigation,” he told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Mark Potter and Alistair Bell; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Keith Weir and Grant McCool

Heard from feeds.reuters.com/~r/reuters/businessNews/~3/YzuHJunDbbk/eu-suspends-boeing-737-max-flights-u-s-senators-suggest-similar-move-idUSKBN1QT0P1

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