The latest version of Boeing Co’s best-selling 737 family – a global industry workhorse – has again been thrust into the spotlight after a fatal crash in Ethiopia, months after a deadly crash involving an identical brand-new jet in Indonesia.
A Nairobi-bound Boeing 737 MAX 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed minutes after takeoff from Addis Adaba, killing all 157 on board. The same model flown by Lion Air crashed off the coast of Indonesia in October, killing all 189 on board.
There are still unanswered questions about the causes of the Lion Air crash, and officials and safety experts said it was too soon to draw links with the Ethiopian incident.
Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It said in a statement it was ready to assist the investigation.
Boeing’s shares lost 12 percent in the weeks following the Lion Air crash, but have more than recouped those declines, closing on Friday at US$422.54, 18 percent higher than before the Oct. 29 incident in Indonesia.
Boeing’s 737 MAX is the newest version of a jet that has been a fixture of passenger travel for decades and the cash cow of the world’s largest aircraft maker, competing against Airbus SE’s A320neo family of single-aisle jetliners.
The decades-old 737 family is considered one of the industry’s most reliable aircraft.
Boeing rolled out the fuel-efficient MAX 8 in 2017 as an update to the already redesigned 50-year-old 737, and had delivered 350 MAX jets out of the total order tally of 5,011 aircraft by the end of January.
Former NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker said the catastrophic crashes of two new airplanes soon after the 737 MAX 8 was introduced were “highly unusual” and both had broad similarities in that they went down soon after takeoff.
While it is unclear if there is a direct link, “this is now an extraordinary issue” for aviation safety officials to grapple with and will prompt a sweeping investigation to determine if there are common issues, Rosenker said.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. is the biggest operator of the MAX 8, with 31 aircraft, followed by American Airlines Group Inc. and Air Canada with 24 each.
Southwest and American said on Sunday they remained fully confident in the aircraft and were closely monitoring the investigation.
Aviation analyst Scott Hamilton cautioned against drawing comparisons between the two crashes, especially before the black box recorders are recovered. Ethiopian has a strong reputation and good safety record, he said in a blog post.
Still, the crash puts fresh pressure on Boeing just days before its planned ceremonial debut of another aircraft, the 777x widebody. It was unclear whether Boeing would go ahead with the event scheduled in Seattle on Wednesday.
Following the Lion Air crash, Boeing faced criticism from some US pilot unions for not having detailed in its flight manual a change in the way that software on the MAX reacts in a stall compared with a previous version.
Boeing has insisted that cockpit procedures were already in place to deal with problems that the Lion Air jet experienced.
A preliminary report into the Lion Air crash focused on airline maintenance and training, as well as the technical response of the anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor, but did not give a reason for the crash.
Since then, the cockpit voice recorder was recovered and a final report is due later this year.
Boeing was expected to introduce a software patch to help address the scenario faced by the Lion Air crew in late March or April, government and industry officials told Reuters in recent weeks.
Boeing is already facing a string of lawsuits in the United States by families of the Lion Air crash victims, including five cases in US federal court in Illinois where Boeing has its Chicago headquarters.
The 737 MAX 8 uses LEAP-1B engines made by CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric Co and Safran SA.
The Ethiopian Airlines flight left Bole airport in Addis Ababa at 8:38 a.m. (0538 GMT) on Sunday, before losing contact with the control tower just a few minutes later at 8:44 a.m.
“There are no survivors,” the airline tweeted alongside a picture of chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam holding up a piece of debris inside a large crater at the crash site.
“The pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and that he wanted to return,” Tewolde told a news conference.
Passengers from 33 countries were aboard, said Tewolde.
The dead included Kenyan, Ethiopian, American, Canadian, French, Chinese, Egyptian, Swedish, British, Dutch, Indian, Slovakian, Austrian, Swedish, Russian, Moroccan, Spanish, Polish, and Israeli citizens.
At least four worked for the United Nations, the airline said, and the UN’s World Food Program director confirmed his organization had lost staff in the accident.
Weeping relatives begged for information at airports in Nairobi and Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian’s new aircraft had no recorded technical problems and the pilot had an “excellent” flying record, Tewolde said.
“We received the airplane on November 15, 2018. It has flown more than 1,200 hours. It had flown from Johannesburg earlier this morning,” he said.
Flight ET 302, registration number ET-AVJ, crashed near the town of Bishoftu, 62 kilometers (38 miles) southeast of the capital Addis Ababa, with 149 passengers and eight crew aboard, the airline said.
The flight had unstable vertical speed after take-off, the flight tracking website Flightradar24 tweeted.
Data released by the Sweden-based service suggested the aircraft had climbed almost 1,000 feet after taking off from Addis Ababa, a hot and high-altitude airport whose thinner air requires extra effort from an aircraft’s engines.
It dipped about 450 feet before rapidly climbing another 900 feet until the point where satellite tracking data was lost.
The aircraft had shattered into many pieces and was severely burnt, a Reuters reporter at the scene of the crash said. Clothing and personal effects were scattered widely over the field where the plane came down.
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