United States (US) regulators reversed course Wednesday and grounded Boeing Company’s top – selling 737 Max family of airliners after evidence emerged showing a flight that crashed Sunday in Ethiopia may have experienced the same problem as a plane that went down five months ago off Indonesia.
According to the Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, satellite flight – tracking data, combined with newly discovered evidence from the recent accident, raised suspicions about a safety feature on the Max that was implicated in the Lion Air crash in October, Daniel Elwell.
“It became clear — to all parties, actually — that the track of the Ethiopian Airlines flight was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight,” Elwell said at a media briefing.
The move comes as a major blow to Boeing, which has lost billions of dollars in value this week as nation after nation announced they were barring the aircraft from flying. The single-aisle Max family is the Chicago-based planemaker’s largest seller and accounts for almost one-third of the company’s operating profit.
Boeing dropped as much as 3.2 percent after President Donald Trump announced the grounding but recovered the day’s loss and ended up 0.51 percent by the market close in New York.
Affected planes will be grounded immediately upon reaching their destinations. The impact on U.S. travelers should be limited because there are only 72 Boeing 737 Max aircraft at three U.S. carriers: American Airlines Group Inc. Southwest Airlines Co. and United Continental Holdings Inc.That’s only about 3 percent of the mainline fleet at those carriers.
More than 40 nations had announced the grounding of the jet — and in some cases a ban on flyovers of the plane — in recent days despite reassurances from the FAA. The agency had said as recently as Tuesday there was no evidence to justify an action against the Max.
“We were resolute in our position that we would not take action until we had data to support taking action,” Elwell said. “That data coalesced today and we made the call.”
The voice and data recorders from the crashed plane have been flown to Paris for investigation, Ethiopian Airlines said in a tweet late Wednesday. Ethiopian authorities had asked France’s air-safety bureau to help analyze the devices.
The Lion Air flight descended and climbed more than two dozen times as pilots fought against the plane’s automated safety system that was trying to push down the nose. While Elwell didn’t provide precise information about the Ethiopian plane’s path, it was apparently making the same highly unusual and distinctive movements.
In addition, some unspecified piece of evidence was discovered by investigators in Ethiopia, he said. “Suffice it to say that the evidence we found on the ground,” Elwell said, “made it even more likely that the flight path was close, very close to Lion Air’s.”
The FAA and other aviation regulators around the world took several steps after the Indonesia crash to notify pilots of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, and to remind them how to overcome it in the event of a malfunction. However, a more formal fix to redesign it won’t be mandated until April, the FAA said Monday.
All 157 people aboard the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 died when it plunged into the ground at high speed about six minutes after takeoff near Addis Ababa. Investigators have released no information about what caused the crash.