The Boeing 737 Max, the aircraft model involved in Sunday’s fatal Ethiopian Airlines crash, has now been grounded across the world, after two holdout nations, Canada and the United States, decided to ground the planes.
On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an emergency order grounding the 737 Max Series aircraft. The order was announced by President Donald Trump.
“Airlines are agreeing with this. The safety of the American people – and the safety of all people – is our paramount concern,” Trump said, calling the Ethiopian Airlines crash and last year’s fatal Lion Air crash that also involved the 737 Max “a terrible, terrible thing”.
Trump was careful to note, however, that “Boeing is an incredible company”. Early Tuesday, Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief executive, spoke to Trump on the telephone and made the case that the 737 Max planes should not be grounded in the United States, according to the New York Times.
Trump added: “They [Boeing] are working very, very hard right now and hopefully they will very quickly come up with the answers, but until they do the planes are grounded. I didn’t want to take any chances. We didn’t have to make this decision today. We could have delayed it. We maybe didn’t have to make it at all, but I felt it was important, both psychologically and a lot of other ways.”
Meanwhile, in Canada, the country’s Minister of Transport Marc Garneau said he was issuing a safety notice “as a precautionary measure” banning the Max 8 and Max 9 from Canadian airspace.
Garneau cited new information that comes from “validated satellite tracking data suggesting a possible though unproven similarity in the flight profile of the Lion Air aircraft”. He added that “there are similarities that exceed certain thresholds in our minds with respect to the possible cause of what happened in Ethiopia”, though he stressed multiple times that the information is “not conclusive”.
“I caution that this new information is not conclusive and we must await further evidence hopefully from the voice and data recorders,” Garneau said.
“As the investigations have just started, it’s too soon to speculate about the exact cause of the accident in Addis Ababa and to make direct links to the Lion Air accident in Indonesia in October of 2018.”
He said the order would affect Canadian Max operators Air Canada, Westjet and Sunwing Airlines, and would also have implications for non-Canadian airlines which had previously been able to fly their Maxs in and out of the country.
Business Traveller Asia-Pacific reported on 11 March that the Chinese civil aviation regulator had ordered Chinese operators of the aircraft to stop flying the 737 Max. Then, on Tuesday, Business Traveller reported that Malaysia, Singapore, Oman, Indonesia, Australia and the United Kingdom had also banned the Max.
Fiji, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, South Korea and Thailand are now among the Asian countries that have been added into the mix. The European Union grounded the aircraft across its airspace on Tuesday.
A full list of airlines that fly the 737 Max 8 can be found on Boeing’s website here.
David Yu, an adjunct professor of finance at New York University Shanghai and Business Traveller Asia-Pacific aviation columnist, said he expects to see “moderate disruptions” for travellers across the Asia-Pacific region.
“It would be hard to find replacement for all of the capacity,” he said.
Although, as Canada’s Garneau and others have said, it is too early to know the cause of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, some flyers appear to be nervous about getting onboard a Max.
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me on a 737 Max for the time being, and I’m not at all a nervous flyer,” wrote Business Traveller Forum user GivingupBA.
An Australia-based frequent flyer, who asked not to be named, told Business Traveller Asia-Pacific that when he was taking a Garuda flight in Indonesia on Tuesday, “everyone was checking it wasn’t a Max”.
However, Ron Brickerd, a frequent flier and managing director of Thai aviation consultancy Thayaan Aviation Consultants, said he takes the opposite view of whether it is safe to fly on the Max.
“The statistical odds of it happening again are against you – like how lightening doesn’t strike twice,” he said.
Yu says it is too early to tell if passengers’ initial fears of flying on the Max are warranted. (Yu provided his comments before the US and Canada groundings, and could not immediately be reached for updated comment after those groundings.)
“More investigation is needed, but given that some countries’ aviation authorities have shut down the type’s usage in the country, there won’t be opportunity until a later time when it’s lifted,” he said.
On Tuesday, Boeing said in a statement: “Safety is Boeing’s number one priority and we have full confidence in the safety of the 737 Max. We understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets. We’ll continue to engage with them to ensure they have the information needed to have confidence in operating their fleets.”
Impact on individual airlines
Business Traveller Asia-Pacific has been able to reach a couple of smaller Asian Max operators by telephone.
Eddie Kim, a manager at South Korean low-cost airline Eastar Jet, told Business Traveller Asia-Pacific that his airline made its own decision to ground the Max. The airline now has two Max aircraft in its fleet flying routes to Hong Kong, Japan and Vietnam, and is planning to take four more over the summer.
Kim would not immediately comment on the impact on passengers, saying he needed more time to assess the situation.
Sukhbaatar Purevsuren, finance and foreign negotiation officer, finance and accounting department, MIAT Mongolian Airlines, said her airline was flying a 737 Max 8 on its Ulaanbaatar-Hong Kong route (the aircraft also flies to Moscow). That route, on which Cathay Pacific has a codeshare, is now being flown by a 737-800, the older model. MIAT’s entire fleet consists of only seven aircraft.
“It’s definitely a problem for us that the Max is grounded,” she said, adding: “This is the first time that we were challenged by this. I hope this will not have too much negative effect for us – we don’t know; it just happened a few days ago.”
The Max 8 flying the Hong Kong route only arrived in MIAT’s fleet on February 1, meaning the aircraft has been in service for fewer than six weeks before having to be temporarily withdrawn.
Purevsuren believes MIAT can avoid disruption on the route by deploying three of its leased 737-800 NGs instead. Those aircraft will be in the fleet at least until the end of this year.
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