SINGAPORE – More regulators and airlines turned against Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX jet, with the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and carriers in several Latin American countries grounding the plane after the second crash involving the model in less than five months.
The British suspension affects Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA, the first carrier to be affected that uses the plane on trans-Atlantic routes to the United States.
The suspensions marked an unusual departure for foreign regulators from the guidance of the US Federal Aviation Administration, which vouched for the safety of the plane as investigators probe Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash. About 40 percent of the global 737 MAX fleet has now been idled – most of them MAX 8s, the version involved in the incident.
“I can’t think of a situation where places like China and Australia and some airlines have acted unilaterally,” said Paul Hayes, air safety director at consulting firm Ascend.
The British Civil Aviation Authority was the latest to announce a suspension. The UK regulator cited a lack of information so far from the investigation into the Ethiopian Airlines crash, saying it “issued instructions to stop any commercial passenger flights from any operator arriving, departing or overlying UK airspace.”
Boeing has delivered more than 370 MAX planes to 47 customers, including leasing American carriers, sticking by the FAA guidance, have said they have no plans to ground flights.
Long suspensions could be costly for Boeing, which lost $12.7 billion in market value Monday, the first trading day since the Ethiopian crash. Airlines that bought the plane directly from Boeing could be entitled to payments from the plane maker for lost sales and any potential repair costs, said Phil Seymour, chief executive of aviation consulting firm IBA Group.
In addition, airlines that have leased planes – which have to make rental payments even if the aircraft are idle – should be able to seek compensation from the company, he said. More than 40 leased planes are in countries that have grounded the planes, according to IBA.
Boeing said Monday it was in talks with regulators and airlines about concerns they may have. “We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX,” Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg said in a message to employees. Boeing said it wouldn’t discuss any talks it was having with customers.
The groundings, while widespread, haven’t caused major disruptions to air travel. The global MAX fleet represents a small portion of the thousands of jetliners flying every day. Many carriers that have grounded planes operate only a handful of MAX aircraft, giving them more flexibility to swap them out with other jets.
Little information has been released about the circumstances of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, making it likely that any conclusions are still weeks, if not months, away. The crash, which killed all 157 people on board, occurred less than five months after another Boeing 737 MAX 8, operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air, crashed into the Java Sea, heightening safety concerns about the model.
Accident investigators haven’t determined the causes of either crash or any link between the incidents. But similarities, including the plane type involved and the jets’ sudden plunge from the sky shortly after takeoff, have unnerved industry veterans.
Investigators haven’t made conclusive determinations about the Lion Air flight. They found it suffered unreliable sensor information before it went down, a problem Boeing has promised to fix with a software upgrade.
Investigators also are probing the airline’s maintenance of the plane and potential pilot errors. Lion Air has said the plane was well maintained. It is cooperating with that probe.
Australian authorities on Tuesday said that in light of the two recent accidents, they were temporarily suspending Boeing 737 MAX aircraft operations “in the best interests of safety.” No Australian airline operates the plane, but two global foreign carriers operate their MAX planes in Australia, the country’s civil aviation regulator said.
Boeing faces the prospect that many of the idled planes will be parked for some time. Regulators and airlines that have grounded the plane will need to be given a good reason to reverse course.
Some regulators signaled openness to returning the planes to the sky once they have been checked out. Indonesian Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi said Tuesday that the MAX suspension should last no more than a week. “We will deploy teams to inspect the planes. If they don’t find any [fault] the planes can fly again,” Sumadi told reporters in Central Java’s capital of Semarang.
Ethiopian Airlines, which grounded its planes Monday along with China and Indonesia, said the jets could remain parked until more details emerged from the probe. Investigators Monday recovered the plane’s so-called black boxes, which store vital flight information.
Investigators are expected to look into similarities between the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes. In the Indonesian incident, crew battled inaccurate sensor information, a cascade of warnings and an automatic flight-control system that repeatedly pushed down the nose of the plane during the 11 minutes from takeoff until the crash.
Esayas Woldemariam, managing director at Ethiopian Airlines, said the carrier had put its pilots, including the one flying the plane that crashed Sunday, through extra training after the Indonesian accident. He didn’t specify what training was provided. Indonesian officials Tuesday said they had asked to be involved in the Ethiopian Airlines probe and were awaiting a response from their Ethiopian counterparts.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore said Tuesday it was temporarily suspending operations of all variants of the Boeing 737 MAX into and out of Singapore because of the two crashes.
South Korean and Indian regulators required their carriers to conduct extra checks of 737 MAX planes. South Korea said it wanted extra checks to address public concern about the safety of MAX planes. The country’s Eastar Jet Co. said it would ground its two 737 MAX 8 jets from Wednesday in response.
India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation has asked airlines to conduct checks on the autopilot, stall management systems and angle of attack sensors of MAX planes during inspections. Ground engineers have been instructed not to return planes to flying under certain conditions. Discount carrier SpiceJet, the only Indian operator currently flying MAX jets, said its operations would continue as normal. It has 13 MAX jets in its fleet.
Mexican carrier Aeromexico said late Monday it was grounding its six 737 MAX jets “until more thorough information on the investigation” into the Ethiopian crash can be provided. Brazil’s GOL Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA and Argentine carrier Aerolineas Argentinas took similar action.
The intervention of the Singaporean regulator will hit Singapore Airlines Ltd.’s regional arm SilkAir, which operates six 737 MAX aircraft, as well as other airlines that fly the aircraft to Singapore. They include China Southern Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Shandong Airlines and Thai Lion Air, the regulator said.
SilkAir said in a statement that the grounding of its 737 MAX jets would cause some disruption to flight schedules, but that its 17 older 737 jets were unaffected.
The regulator said it has been in frequent contact with SilkAir about its MAX operations since last year and is satisfied the airline has complied with all safety requirements. It also said it is in touch with other regulators, including the FAA, and Boeing.
Oman also grounded flights of the 737 MAX 8, idling five of the planes operated by Oman Air.
Malaysia also barred the model, though no local airlines operate it.