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Member Advisory: Boeing 737 MAX 8

 

Background

On 10 March, 157 passengers and crew were killed when a Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed shortly after takeoff. Flight ET 302 departed from Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (ABB) in Ethiopia at 08:38 local time en route to Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) in Kenya. The pilot sent out a distress call and was given clearance to return to ABB, but the plane reportedly crashed six minutes after takeoff at 08:44 near Bishoftu. The victims of the crash represent 35 nationalities and include many aid workers and United Nations (UN) staff.

Authorities have yet to confirm the cause of the crash. Visibility was reportedly clear, but the plane showed “unstable vertical speed” after takeoff, according to data from FlightRadar24. The airline confirmed that the plane was new, having flown only 1,200 hours since it was delivered to Ethiopian Airlines in mid-November. The pilot had reportedly been employed at the airline since 2010 and was considered an experienced flier with 8,000 flight hours.

 

Similarities to October 2018 Lion Air crash in Indonesia

In the aftermath of the Flight ET 302 accident, comparisons have been made to another crash on 29 October 2018, in which 189 passengers and crew were killed when a Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft operated by Lion Air crashed into the Java Sea approximately 13 minutes after takeoff. Flight JT 610 departed from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK) in Jakarta, Indonesia at 06:20 local time en route to Depati Amir Airport (PGK) in Pangkal Pinang. The pilot reportedly asked for clearance to return to CGK, but air traffic control lost contact with the plane at 06:33. Witnesses to the accident said that the plane crashed with high impact at a steep, nose-down angle.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 involved in the Flight JT 610 crash had previously flown 800 hours, having been delivered new to Lion Air in August 2018. Between 26-29 October, six problems were reportedly identified on the plane, including errors with displays that showed airspeed and attitude information and issues with the plane’s angle-of-attack sensor. During the flight before Flight JT 610, the crew had reportedly issued a “Pan Pan” urgency signal—indicating an emergency one level below “Mayday”—due to instrument failure. Lion Air, which is a regional budget carrier, also has a troubled record with proper airplane maintenance and safety.

A preliminary investigation of Flight JT 610 revealed that the co-pilot indicated to air traffic control that there was a “flight control problem” shortly after takeoff. The plane’s automatic anti-stalling system repeatedly forced the nose of the plane downward, which the crew manually corrected by steering the plane upward. The crew indicated to air traffic control that the aircraft’s instruments were displaying different altitudes, and the plane lost contact shortly after. Following the accident, Boeing received significant criticism for allegedly failing to disclose to pilots that the Boeing 737 MAX 8 was programmed with an anti-stalling system, which was designed to offset the risk that the size and placement of the aircraft’s engines could lead the plane to stall under specific conditions. The software is coded to automatically push the nose of the plane downward if sensors indicate that the angle of ascent is steep enough to stall the plane. In the case of Flight JT 610, the preliminary investigation suggests that this system activated after faulty sensors indicated incorrect data about the plane’s ascent. In the wake of the crash, a memo from Boeing indicated that the system may kick in even if pilots are flying manually and it can push the nose of the plane downward such that pilots cannot steer it back up. Pilots were not briefed on the anti-stalling system and it was not included in flight manuals, reportedly because Boeing did not envision a scenario in which the automatic system would take over and because the company wanted to minimize the costs of retraining pilots on the new system. The anti-stalling system is also reportedly installed on Boeing’s 737 MAX 9 aircraft.

The Flight ET 302 and Flight JT 610 crashes both involved relatively new Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft that crashed shortly after takeoff. In both cases, flight data indicates that pilots struggled to maintain a steady ascent and weather doesn’t appear to have played a role in either crash. However, the results of a preliminary investigation into Flight ET 302 are not expected for several weeks and authorities have not confirmed any possible causes of the accident.

 

Subsequent Safety Measures

As of 13 March, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 has been grounded around the world. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S., there were approximately 387 Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in operation worldwide prior to the crash, including 74 in the U.S. In a statement released on 11 March, the FAA had initially noted that they had not yet “been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions” following the crash, but acknowledged that external reporting has drawn similarities between the two crashes. Boeing also initially announced on 12 March that it had full confidence in the safety of its aircraft and that the manufacturer did not plan to issue any new guidance to operators.

However, on 13 March, Boeing released a statement saying the company supports the decision to suspend further flights involving the aircraft “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety.” The announcement came after U.S. President Donald Trump announced on 13 March that the US government would be issuing an emergency order to ground all Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 planes. The FAA said in a statement on 13 March that it is ordering the temporary grounding of the planes following new evidence that had been gathered from the scene of the ET 301 crash along with newly refined satellite data. The FAA noted that the grounding would remain in effect pending further investigation. The U.S. was the last major country to ground the aircraft or ban it from its airspace.

Other governments around the world have also raised concerns regarding the safety of the aircraft. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) declared on 12 March that it will ban Boeing 737 MAX 8 and Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft from the European Union’s airspace. Similarly, on 13 March, the Canadian government announced it would temporarily ban all Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft from its airspace, citing “new information” they had received that morning from the recent crash. At least 45 countries have also either grounded Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft or banned them from their airspace in the wake of the crash.

Civil aviation authorities are continuing to review the situation, and the restrictions on the aircraft are subject to change.

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