Passengers who have upcoming trips with some Chinese airlines would be wise to check with their airline or travel agent about any potential disruptions to their journeys.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), China’s civil aviation regulator, has ordered domestic airlines to suspend operations of their Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft following an Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday that killed 157 people.

Flight ET302 to Nairobi, Kenya, was being operated by a 737 Max 8, the same aircraft type involved in a fatal Lion Air crash in October 2018. People from more than 30 countries were among the victims when the plane went down around six minutes after leaving Addis Ababa. Ethiopian Airlines flies four times per day from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. Kenya Airways also flies the same route four times per day.

The CAAC said in a Chinese-language statement that at 9am on March 11 it issued a notice requesting that domestic airlines suspend commercial operations of Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft before 6pm of the same day. The regulator notes that both the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes occurred during the takeoff phase, and says it ordered the grounding based on its “management principle of zero tolerance for safety hazards and strict control of safety risks”.

China’s air traffic control is generally conservative when it comes to safety, implementing longer gaps between take-offs and landings than many other countries, Business Traveller Asia-Pacific columnist and aviation expert David Yu wrote in March. This and other practices have contributed to the country’s strong recent safety record, with the last fatal accident in 2010 and before that in 2004, both on regional jets.

In November 2017, Hainan Airlines became the second Chinese carrier to fly the 737 Max 8. The aircraft type made its debut in China when flag carrier Air China deployed the aircraft on its Beijing-Urumqi service.

According to the CAPA Fleet Database, there are 96 in-service 737 Max 8s in China. Here is a breakdown:

Airline Number of 737 Max 8s
9 Air 1
Air China 15
China Eastern 3
China Southern 24
Fuzhou Airlines 2
Hainan Airlines 11
Kunming Airlines 2
Lucky Air 3
Okay Airways 2
Shandong Airlines 7
Shanghai Airlines 11
Shenzhen Airlines 5
Xiamen Airlines 10

Jordan Yang, a Beijing-based partner at Allbright Law Offices who specialises in aviation, said the CAAC’s move will result in difficulties for Chinese 737 Max 8 operators to schedule flights with alternative aircraft.

“I think it’s quite rare for the CAAC to do this action,” he said, adding that “probably other countries will do the same thing for the next few weeks”.

However, David Yu, the Business Traveller Asia-Pacific columnist, said there would be “slight to no impact” for travellers.

“It’s not a large aircraft where they don’t have as many and they’re mostly in use; this is a very mainstream one, so they can easily replaced be with other equivalent narrowbodies,” he said.

Yu adds that, if the flight is not cancelled, the airline will simply swap out the plane. If the flight times are changed, the airlines will contact passengers to ask if they would like to accept this new flight time, or take a refund.

“Some of these are big airlines and some of these are not, but the main question is how long is this shutdown, this suspension of service? If this is a shorter term one, then it won’t have as much impact to passengers, but if it’s a longer term issue then it can really affect the operations and fleet strategy going forward. More investigation is needed.”

A source at Shenzhen Airlines told Business Traveller Asia-Pacific that the airline “will operate in accordance with the requirements of the CAAC”, adding that there is unlikely to be disruption to passengers because Shenzhen Airlines only has five 737 Max 8s. The airline has a total fleet of 189 aircraft, according to CAPA Fleet Database.

A source at Guangzhou-based 9 Air, a low-cost subsidiary of Juneyao Airlines, says the company is assessing the impact on the Guangzhou-Changchun route that its single 737 Max 8 flies.

“But fortunately, we just have one Max right now; the other 17 aircraft are NG [next generation],” the person says, referring to the older models. “However, as the upcoming deliveries are Maxs, if the model has design shortcomings, it could be a big blow to 9 Air.”

Yu said: “The issue with the smaller carriers is they’re probably less likely to have more backup aircraft to take up the slack for out of service aircraft, as they don’t have as many aircraft in total while the bigger airlines are more able to cope as they’ve got plenty of aircraft that they can move around.”

Other 737 Max 8-operating Chinese airlines were not immediately reachable for comment.

In a statement posted to its official Twitter page, Ethiopian Airlines says an investigation will be carried out to determine the cause of the accident. This will be “in collaboration with all stakeholders including the aircraft manufacturer Boeing, Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and other international entities”.

The airline has also decided to ground its entire Max fleet.

“Although we don’t yet know the cause, we had to decide to ground the particular fleet as extra safety precaution,” the airline said.

In a statement, Boeing says: “Boeing is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a 737 MAX 8 airplane. We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board and stand ready to support the Ethiopian Airlines team. A Boeing technical team will be travelling to the crash site to provide technical assistance under the direction of the Ethiopia Accident Investigation Bureau and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.”

Separately, Cayman Airways, the flag carrier of the British overseas territory of the Cayman Islands, said it is suspending operations of its 737 Max 8 aircraft, effective March 11. 

Join the discussion about the Ethiopian Airlines crash in our forum here.

12/03/2019: On Monday, Indonesia and Singapore joined China in grounding its Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft.

Additional reporting by Jackie Chen