Its belated order grounding all Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 passenger jets flown by U.S. carriers is an embarrassing black eye for the beleaguered U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which resisted doing so since Sunday’s crash of an Ethiopian Airlines MAX 8 killing all 157 onboard.
And it wasn’t even the FAA which broke the news but president Donald Trump, who in characteristic fashion took full credit for the decision. Analysts concur the FAA’s grounding order was forced on it by Canada’s move to ban operations of the 737 MAX 8, making the U.S. the only major country in the world not to have grounded this controversial jetliner
The FAA grounded all Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets in the U.S. citing new evidence that shows similarities between two fatal crashes of the new planes that killed 346 people in about five months. The first crash saw a MAX 8 operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunge into the Java Sea a mere six minutes after it took off.
Sunday’s crash of an Ethiopian Airlines MAX 8 saw the plane plunge almost vertically into the ground just 13 minutes after take-off. In both cases, the ill-fated planes were climbing towards their cruising altitudes when they inexplicably fell from the sky.
Also, in both cases, pilots of the aircraft reported flight control issues before the planes disappeared from radar screens. The Ethiopian Air pilot radioed problems controlling the aircraft and requested permission to return to Addis Ababa before Flight ET302 met its end.
Both planes were new, and were delivered by Boeing to Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines just months before their doomed flights.
The FAA’s move to ground the MAX 8 is a stunning turnaround for the U.S., which had defended the airworthiness of the American-made Max 8 even after dozens of countries around the world grounded the planes. The Boeing Company, one of whose units makes the MAX 8, is the single largest U.S. exporter in terms of dollar value.
The FAA said the grounding will remain in effect while it investigates the crash.
“An FAA team is in Ethiopia assisting the NTSB as parties to the investigation of the Flight 302 accident,” it said in a statement.
New satellite data shows the plane’s movement was similar to the October crash, said acting FAA administrator Daniel Elwel.
“It became clear the track was very close and behaved similarly to the Lion Air flight,” noted Elwell. “My hope is the FAA, the carriers, the manufacturers and all parties will work very hard to make this grounding as short as possible so that these airplanes can get back up in the sky.”
Elwell said the FAA didn’t have enough data to warrant grounding the planes earlier
“We are a fact-driven, a data-based organization,” he said. “Since this accident occurred, we were resolute in our decision that we would not take action until we had data to support taking action. That data coalesced today and we made the call.”
The Ethiopian Airlines plane’s two black boxes, the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorder, will be sent to France for analysis this week, said Elwell.
Of the more than 370 Boeing 737 Max jets in operation worldwide, 74 are flown by U.S. airlines, said the FAA. China flies the largest number of MAX 8s at 97. Combined, both the U.S. and China fly almost half of all MAX 8s in service today.
The U.S. has not had a fatal commercial plane crash in 10 years, and its leadership in ensuring aircraft and passenger safety has made it the world leader in aviation safety. The flap with the MAX 8 seems to have dented that reputation since the U.S. became the last major country flying the jet to order its grounding.
“The United States should be leading the world in aviation safety,” said John Samuelsen, president of a union representing transport workers, which called for the MAX 8 to be grounded.
“And yet, because of the lust for profit in the American aviation, we’re still flying planes that dozens of other countries and airlines have now said need to be grounded.”
The 737 MAX 9 is one of four variants of the new MAX series. Its first operator is Indonesia’s Lion Air.