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Here’s why China and foreign carriers have grounded the 737 Max 8 and the U.S. and Europe haven’t

One of Boeing’s most important profit drivers, the 737 Max 8 jet, is facing renewed questions about its safety and reliability. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)
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The different responses to Sunday’s crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8, the second in less than six months, reflect how different the stakes are for the countries and airlines involved, experts and analysts said Monday.

While U.S. regulators and airlines remain attentive to the investigation into the Ethio­pian Airlines crash involving the world’s fastest-selling passenger plane, officials here and in Europe said they are confident that pilot training, maintenance practices and safeguards in place will prevent a catastrophe such as the one that killed 157 people in Ethi­o­pia on Sunday.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a “continued airworthiness notification” to the international community Monday, meant to convey its confidence in the American-made jetliner.

The notification essentially means that U.S. regulators believe the planes are safe, but they will take action if they receive information that indicates otherwise.

“The FAA continuously assesses and oversees the safety performance of U.S. commercial aircraft,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a conference call with reporters regarding President Trump’s budget. “If the FAA identifies an issue that affects safety, the department will take immediate and appropriate action.”

Questions about the plane were raised in October, when Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea in Indonesia killing all 189 passengers and crew aboard.

Both flights went down shortly after takeoff and appeared to have similar flight paths. Airlines and regulators in Ethi­o­pia, China and several other countries announced they were temporarily grounding the Max 8 jets. But in the United States and Europe, regulators, industry groups and Boeing all said it was too soon to draw any conclusions.

For the countries and airlines that have grounded the plane, the decision reflects fears about their unfamiliarity with the new technology and the potential fallout from a catastrophe — particularly for new and smaller carriers, analysts said. For U.S. regulators, the bar for taking such a dramatic step is much higher, they said.

“I don’t think that we have concrete data to justify it at this point,” said John Cox, a former pilot and an airline-safety consultant with the Washington-based aviation-safety consulting firm Safety Operating Systems. “Grounding an airplane is a big step and so we want to take it very cautiously — only if there is justification for it.”

In the United States, there would have to be a clear mechanical issue or specific safety concern tying the two crashes, such as the several fire incidents that led the FAA to ground Boeing 787 Dreamliners because of faulty lithium-ion batteries in 2013, experts said.

Monday’s signal from top U.S. officials that the 737 Max 8 remained airworthy indicated that standard had not been met, although there was strong speculation that the crash was connected to the same “angle of attack” sensor that factored into the Oct. 29 Lion Air crash.

China abruptly pulled 100 of the planes from operation through its civil aviation authority after Sunday’s crash. Some analysts attributed the decision to political motivations, given the countries’ strained geopolitical relationship and Boeing’s status as the world’s largest commercial aircraft manufacturer.

But the Civil Aviation Administration of China said the step was taken in “view of the fact that the two air crashes are newly delivered” 737 Max 8 planes, that both happened during takeoff and “they have certain similarities.” The government regulator said the decision reflected “zero tolerance” for safety risks.

“I think in this case, they’re really worried that there’s something wrong with the airplane,” said Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultant Leeham.

So why the different approach from operators in the United States?

Ethiopia, China, other countries ground Boeing aircraft after devastating crash

“Training is better with U.S. pilots than some of the carriers that have already put the airplanes in service,” Hamilton said. He cited the reaction from American Airlines and Southwest Airlines pilots after the Lion Air crash, who, he said, raised “holy hell” to address the omissions in the flight manuals about the “angle of attack” safety sensor that was said to be at least partially at fault in that crash.

“If I were the pilots at American and Southwest and even United and became aware of this because of Lion Air, that would be part of my training right away,” Hamilton said.

Ethio­pian Airlines is well-regarded in the aviation industry for its safety record. Its last major crash was in 2010, when all 90 people aboard an aircraft were killed when it caught fire and plunged into the Mediterranean after it took off from Beirut’s airport. Before that, its last major air safety incident was a 1996 hijacking that killed more than 100, one of the deadliest air hijackings up to that point. But it was not a disaster that called the airline’s training or equipment into question. The company subjects its pilots to rigorous training and serves as a training hub for Africa and surrounding countries in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, according to the airline.

“There are a lot of myths and presumptions that are made by Americans when it comes to the safety records of foreign” airlines, said Patrick Smith, a veteran airline pilot who hosts “Ethiopian Airlines is a good example of that. Because people hear Ethi­o­pia . . . they make certain unfortunate associations. Meanwhile, that carrier is one of the proudest airlines in the world, and on the whole, they have a very good safety record.”

Some experts said the crash did raise questions, however, about whether Ethio­pian Airlines pilots had received training on how to disable the sensor cited in the Lion Air crash, if necessary, or whether a software update promised by Boeing to address that glitch had been installed on the Ethio­pian Airlines fleet.

Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 renews scrutiny on Boeing 737 Max

Boeing declined to answer any questions related to the investigation.

Thomas R. Anthony, a former FAA investigator who runs the University of Southern California Aviation Safety and Security Program, cautioned against reaching conclusions too quickly, even with similarities between the crashes.

Certainly, he said, the airplane being sold is no different from one country to the next. But he concurred with others who said the United States has capabilities for training and safety oversight that may factor into its decision not to ground the aircraft.

“The U.S. air carriers have robust mechanisms for the distribution of the training materials and new information,” he said. “Aviation is more mature in the United States than most of the countries in the rest of the world. It has had more time to develop. Just by virtue of its size and time, the system is more mature in the United States.”

Anthony said U.S. training is also more involved, requiring an FAA license and commercial flying certifications.

“It is more developed, and it is more robust,” he said, noting that the United States has a technical training center in Oklahoma City, where technicians and inspectors train for years, a facility that most countries don’t have.

By contrast, he said, reports including from the International Civil Aviation Organization, have found oversight lagging in countries where regulators may not have the authority or capabilities of their U.S. counterparts.

“It may not be a different safety standard, but it may be a different level of capability of the authority,” Anthony said. Aircraft operations and certification are dependent upon the staffing of governmental agencies, and around the world, Anthony said, “we have found they have not been staffed adequately.”

The International Air Transport Association, which represents 290 airlines comprising about 82 percent of global air traffic, declined to comment on decisions by individual carriers concerning whether to ground a particular aircraft.

But a spokesman referred to IATA data released last month for the 2018 safety performance of the commercial airline industry, which showed continued safety improvements over the long term — although there was a small increase in crashes last year compared with 2017.

According to the group’s ratings, there was one major crash for every 5.4 million flights involving major jets. Those included 11 fatal crashes that resulted in 523 fatalities in 2018.

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“Last year, some 4.3 billion passengers flew safely on 46.1 million flights. 2018 was not the extraordinary year that 2017 was,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and chief executive, said in announcing the data last month. “Flying is safe, and the data tell us that it is getting safer.”

Michael Laris, Lori Aratani and Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.