Trump stokes Boeing safety anxiety as Australia, Europe, others order groundings

The European Union followed quick on the heels of Britain’s regulators on Tuesday, suspending all operations of the 737 Max 8 and Max 9 models across Europe, and banning flights from outside the region as of 7 pm London time.

“The accident investigation is currently ongoing, and it is too early to draw any conclusions as to the cause of the accident,” the authority said in a statement.

The wave of groundings mean close to half of the global 737 Max fleet has now been parked.

It follows the death of all 157 people on board an Ethiopian Airlines service that crashed on Sunday shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa. The jet was the same model that crashed in similar circumstances in Indonesia last October killing 189 people.

As investigators look at the so-called black box flight recorders from Sunday’s flight, speculation has centred on whether there was an issue with the in-flight software system. There is no evidence yet whether the two crashes are linked.

As the bans widened, shares of Boeing fell for a second day, shedding more than 7 per cent, and contributed to weak overall stock markets on Tuesday, with major indexes little changed. The company lost $US12.7 billion ($17.9 billion) in market value on Monday.

With other authorities also reportedly reviewing the situation, including Canada’s, the groundings threaten the Seattle-based manufacturer’s largest bread-and-butter income earner. The single-aisle 737 class is considered the aviation industry’s workhorse, with more than 737 Max 8s in service around the world, but mostly in the US and China.

Boeing has already delivered more than 370 of the models to 47 customers. None have been delivered to Australian carriers.

Despite the US FAA’s decision not to follow the global bans, experts say they need to be grounded until their safety can be guaranteed.

“The flying public has to be assured that these planes are safe, and they don’t feel that way now,” Ray LaHood, the former US Secretary of Transportation who grounded the 787 Dreamliner following fires in its lithium-ion battery packs in 2013 told Bloomberg on Tuesday.

“The Secretary of Transportation should announce today that these planes will be grounded until there is 100 percent assurance from Boeing that these planes are safe to fly, because unless they can give that assurance they’re not holding up their promise to be the top safety agency in the US”

Mitt Romney, a US Senator and former Republican presidential nominee, has also urged the aviation administration to ground the plane.

“Out of an abundance of caution for the flying public, the (FAA) should ground the 737 Max 8 until we investigate the causes of recent crashes and ensure the plane’s airworthiness,” he wrote in a tweet.

The company said in a statement on Tuesday that it has full confidence in the plane’s safety.

“We understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets,” Boeing said.

Similarities between Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash and the Lion Air disaster last year are at the centre of investigations by authorities.

Pilots on Lion Air were confronted by inaccurate sensor information and a flight-control system that automatically forced the aircraft into a dive. It crashed 11 minutes after takeoff. The Ethiopian flight ended after about six minutes, and preliminary data indicates an erratic ascent after takeoff.

Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Tewolde Gebremariam told CNN that pilots reported flight-control problems before the crash.

Some 33 nations have grounded the aircraft including Oman, France, Turkey, the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland, while more than 26 airlines such as TUI, Silkair, Eastar and Singapore have also suspended flights.

Lion Air, one of the biggest 737 Max customers, said it would refuse to take delivery of more planes and is considering switching to Airbus SE.

“I can’t think of a situation where places like China and Australia and some airlines have acted unilaterally,” Paul Hayes, air-safety director at consulting firm Ascend, told the Wall Street Journal.

The British Civil Aviation Authority, which normally works closely with the FAA, said the lack of information about the 737 crash was a reason for stopping “any commercial passenger flights from any operator arriving, departing or overlying U.K. airspace.”

The journal reported that Boeing would update the 737 Max software system, including switching to multiple data feeds in the plane’s stall-prevention system, rather than relying on a single sensor.

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