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Economy

Boeing facing unprecedented fallout as EU joins wave of 737 MAX bans

media Boeing employees in front of a 737 Max 8. Jason Redmond/File Photo/Reuters

Dozens of airlines and air safety agencies around the world have grounded Boeing’s 737 Max planes ahead of findings by air safety investigators into the cause of a deadly Ethiopian airlines crash on Sunday involving one of the aircraft.

On Tuesday evening the European air safety agency banned flights by the plane over Europe, following the decision by several European countries’ agencies, including France.

John Strickland, aviation analyst, on grounding of Boeing 737 Max planes 13/03/2019 - by Sarah Elzas Listen

“What we’ve seen in the past couple of days play out is quite unusual. Normally we would not see any action until the investigation team had issued at least some preliminary findings,” John Strickland, an aviation consultant, told RFI.

The Ethiopian airline’s black boxes are currently being examined, but Jean Pierre Otelli, a French pilot and author of several books on airline safety, says it’s difficult not to see a connection between the crash in Ethiopia and the Lion Air flight that crashed in Indonesia in October.

“When you have a flight crew that a few minutes after take-off that wants to turn around to for an emergency landing, you know it’s not a pilot error. Something is happening, and it’s certainly technical. And when you see the precedent case five months earlier, there is very little doubt. Even if we cannot be sure.”

In the investigation into the Lion Air crash, the focus has been on an automated anti-stalling system introduced on the 737 Max 8 which is difficult to override manually. Boeing has been criticised for allegedly not adequately informing and training 737 pilots on the new system.

Wave of 737 groundings

China on Monday made the decision to suspend domestic airlines’ flying the 737 Max 8, citing the two crashes. They had 96 in service, more than a quarter of the 371 in circulation worldwide.

“The Chinese took the decision, which at first seemed to sound a bit more political, given the US-China trade tensions,” says Strickland, though he has not found any indication that it was anything more than a safety concern. “That created something of a snowball effect. And, unusually, other regulators and individual airlines followed suit.”

The UK banned the airplane from flying over its airspace on Tuesday and France and other countries followed suit. By the evening the European Aviation Safety Agency suspended Max 8 and 9 planes from arriving, leaving or flying over the European Union, regardless of what airline they are flying for.

By Wednesday afternoon more than 40 countries – not including the United States – suspended flights by the plane.

“These authorities have talked about reassurance to customers,” says Strickland.

Economic woes

“When you see two crashes, one after the other, with the same circumstances, in which the pilots fought to right the plane and were unable to do so, and where we understand in the case of the first crash that it was a technical problem, obviously the companies do not want to find themselves with planes that are nose-diving right into the ground,” said Otelli.

The economic effects of the decision to ground the planes is immediate, as airlines scramble to rent other aircraft. In the long term, Boeing has nearly 5,000 more 737 Max planes on order around the world.

“It will be an economic catastrophe for Boeing and an economic catastrophe for the airlines that cannot use the planes,” says Otelli. And how long will it take to be able to bring these planes back to reasonable security standards? We have no idea.”

Much as there was speculation about China’s motivations for grounding the Boeing planes in the face of its trade war with the United States, the EU’s decision can be seen as a boost for the company’s European competitor, Airbus.

But Strickland disagrees: “There’s a recognition that any problem with an aircraft could affect anyone… There’s nothing to gain right now from any conjecture that airlines would switch orders to Airbus, because order books are very full for several years ahead.”

Though that might depend on the result of the investigation into the Ethiopian Airlines crash, and what Boeing might be required to do to fix the situation.

“It’s very important to understand structurally, mechanically, technically, procedurally… whatever different elements contributed to the accident,” says Strickland. “Only once those are understood and rectification put in place, could we say we have a clean slate.”

(With Patricia Lecompte)

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