Monday evening, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a “continued airworthiness notification to the international community for Boeing 737 Max operators.”
The notification essentially said that U.S. regulators think the aircraft are safe to operate but that the agency will take additional action if it receives information indicating otherwise. It also outlined previous actions the FAA had taken related to the crash of a Lion Air flight Oct. 29. That plane also was a Max 8.
“The FAA continuously assesses and oversees the safety performance of . . . U.S. commercial aircraft,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said. “If the FAA identifies an issue that affects safety, the department will take immediate and appropriate action.”
European regulators, too, are continuing to monitor the investigation before taking action.
“The European Aviation Safety Agency will assess the risk and decide based on information received if there is any further action,” European Commission spokesman Enrico Brivio said.
The Ethiopian government declared a national day of mourning Monday as the recovery efforts continued. Ethiopian Airlines said the plane’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder have been recovered. The hope is that the instruments will offer critical details about what happened in the minutes before the Nairobi-bound flight crashed.
The scene after an Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed near Addis Ababa
“At this stage, we cannot rule out anything,” Tewolde GebreMariam, chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines, told reporters at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, the BBC reported.
The investigative team includes representatives from the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board. Those aboard the flight represented more than 30 nationalities, including 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians and eight Americans.
Several of the victims were traveling to a United Nations environmental conference. “The environmental community is in mourning today,” the U.N. Environment Program said in a statement, describing the loss of “seasoned scientists, members of academia and other partners.” The organization’s global headquarters is in Nairobi.
The crash drew immediate comparisons to the October crash of Lion Air Flight 610. All 189 passengers and crew aboard were killed when that jet crashed into the Java Sea. Like the Ethiopian flight, the Lion Air plane went down shortly after takeoff.
Lion Air is a privately run Indonesian carrier.
But FAA officials cautioned against drawing conclusions so early in the investigative process.
“External reports are drawing similarities between this accident and the Lion Air Flight 610 accident on October 29, 2018,” the agency stated in the airworthiness notification it issued Monday. “However, this investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions.”
The notice detailed training and technical changes made after the Lion Air crash. It noted that Boeing had completed improvements in the planes’ flight control system to rely less on “required pilot memory items.” The FAA said it “anticipates mandating these design changes by [airworthiness directive] no later than April 2019.”
Late Monday, Boeing said in a statement that it would implement a software update to the 737 Max 8 in the coming weeks designed to “make an already safe aircraft even safer,” by making changes to “flight control law, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.” The update was among the design changes referenced in the FAA notice.
The Air Line Pilots Association International agreed that more information was needed.
“As the various parties responsible for this investigation begin their work, we caution against speculation about what may have caused this tragic accident,” the organization said in a statement. “ALPA stands ready, through the International Federation of airline Pilots’ Associations, to assist the international aviation community in every way possible with the shared goal of advancing a safer air transportation system around the globe.”
Officials at Chicago-based Boeing said the company had no reason to recommend that the planes be grounded.
“The investigation is in its early stages, but at this point, based on the information available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators,” a company spokesman said via email.
But a U.S. travelers’ rights group called on the FAA to immediately pull the Max 8 from service.
“The FAA’s wait and see attitude risks lives as well as the safety reputation of the U.S. aviation industry,” said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, a consumer advocacy group.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote to acting FAA administrator Daniel K. Elwell asking that the aircraft be grounded “until their safe use has been confirmed.” Feinstein is the first U.S. politician to make such a request.
“Until the cause of the crash is known and it’s clear that similar risks aren’t present in the domestic fleet, I believe the Boeing 737 Max 8 series aircraft operating in the United States should be temporarily grounded,” the senator said in her letter.
Boeing stock plunged Monday morning, dragging down the Dow Jones industrial average.
Chao said she met with a top FAA official “to review what has happened on this crash, what has happened with the previous accident, and what are possible paths going forward.”
The secretary added that people should “be assured that we take these accidents very seriously, we are reviewing them very carefully,” and said she has asked to be directly briefed on the latest developments and findings.
In 2013, several fire incidents led the FAA to ground Boeing 787 Dreamliners because of faulty lithium-ion batteries.
Some countries and carriers moved to ground their Max 8 jets Monday.
Ethiopian Airlines said its fleet of the planes would be grounded as an “extra safety precaution.”
China’s Civil Aviation Administration said in a statement early Monday that it had asked domestic airlines to temporarily ground all Max 8 jets before 6 p.m. It was the first time China has taken the lead in ordering a model grounded.
Cayman Airways and Indonesia’s airlines also suspended the use of the Max 8. Indonesia’s director general of civil aviation, Polana B. Pramesti, said that the move was to ensure flight safety and that the planes would be inspected. Indonesia has 11 Max 8 aircraft in service.
After a review, India’s aviation authority said that crew members operating the Max 8 must undergo specific training and that only pilots with 1,000 hours of flying experience would be allowed to operate the aircraft. There are 17 Max 8 aircraft operating in the country.
In Vietnam, meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Authority said it would not license the use of the Max plane in the country pending the results of investigations and remedial measures. While there are no Max 8 aircraft in use in Vietnam, budget airline VietJet Air ordered 100 Boeing 737 Max aircraft in February, including 20 of the Max 8 version. The order was made at the same time President Trump was meeting with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi.
The national airlines of Mexico and Argentina announced Monday night that they had suspended the operation of their Max 8 planes, Reuters reported.
Singapore, Morocco and Mongolia also suspended operation of Max 8 planes, news agencies reported. Royal Air Maroc had two of the airliners in service and two on order. Mongolia reportedly had one of the planes in service.
In the United States, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines expressed confidence in their Boeing planes.
“Our fleet of Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft are operating as planned today and we plan to operate those aircraft going forward,” Southwest said in a statement. American said it has “full confidence in the aircraft and our crew members.”
United and Delta do not have Max 8 aircraft in their fleets. United does have Max 9s, another version of the Boeing series.
It was the Oct. 29 Lion Air crash that first raised concerns about the Max 8.
According to the investigation into that crash, pilots wrestled with the plane because a faulty sensor and automatic feature sent its nose pointing down while the pilots struggled to lift the plane up. They requested permission to return to the airport shortly before plunging into the Java Sea.
Officials said Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed just six minutes after takeoff. During the brief flight, data showed the plane ascending, then descending, then ascending sharply again while accelerating to speeds in excess of what is standard during a takeoff. The pilot asked to return to Addis Ababa because he was experiencing difficulties.
The Chinese Civil Aviation Administration, in issuing its order to ground the jets, cited similarities between the two crashes. The CCAA said that all planes of that model would be grounded until further notice under Chinese policies allowing “zero tolerance for safety hazards” and risks. Officials added that they would consult with the FAA and Boeing.
A spokeswoman for Boeing China said the company was staying in touch with all of its customers and government regulators and working closely with the investigative team in Ethiopia to understand the cause of the crash.
The pilot has been identified as Yared Getachew, 29, of Addis Ababa. According to a statement issued by relatives in Northern Virginia, Getachew had 8,000 hours of flight time and was the youngest pilot in Ethiopian Airlines history to captain a Boeing 737.
Though young, he was described by the company as a senior pilot.
Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s largest airline in terms of destinations and passengers served. It has ambitions of serving as the gateway to Africa and is widely viewed as one of the best-managed airlines on the continent.
It serves more than 100 destinations, including Washington, New York and Chicago.
The airline’s last major crash was in 2010, when an aircraft caught fire and plunged into the Mediterranean after taking off from Beirut’s airport, killing all 90 people on board.
Bad weather and a technical fault were cited.
Aratani and Laris reported from Washington. Gerry Shih in Beijing, Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong, Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Aaron Gregg in Washington contributed to this report.