(Bloomberg) -- The Sunday crash of a Boeing Co. 737 Max operated by Ethiopian Airlines rattled confidence in the U.S. manufacturer’s best-selling jet with the second deadly accident for the model in five months.
Flight ET302 plunged to the ground minutes after leaving Addis Ababa en route to Nairobi, Kenya, killing all 157 people on board. The pilot reported problems shortly after takeoff and was cleared to return to the airport, said the airline’s chief executive officer, Tewolde GebreMariam. The 737 Max 8 hadn’t had any apparent mechanical issues on an earlier flight from Johannesburg, he said.
The latest crash raises fresh concerns about the safety of the 737 Max, less than two years after the popular narrow-body entered commercial service. A Lion Air plane of the same model plunged into the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia on Oct. 29, killing 189 passengers and crew. A preliminary report indicated that pilots struggled to maintain control following an equipment malfunction.
In what may be a sign of trouble ahead if other nations follow suit, China asked domestic airlines to temporarily ground 737 Max jets, Caijing reported, citing an unidentified industry participant. Boeing didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has taken no such action and says it is “closely monitoring developments.”
Any disruption to the program would threaten Boeing’s finances as well as the Chicago-based planemaker’s reputation. The single-aisle plane accounts for almost one-third of the company’s operating profit and is poised to generate about $30 billion in annual revenue as factory output rises to a 57-jet monthly pace this year, according to Bloomberg Intelligence estimates.
“It’s the most important airplane in the lineup,” George Ferguson, analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, said in an interview. “If something were to be bad with the 737 program, it would be an extremely serious challenge for the company.”
Boeing said it was preparing to send a technical team to assist the accident investigation of the Ethiopian Airlines plane, which was delivered new in November to Africa’s biggest carrier. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board likewise plan to work with Ethiopian authorities in probing the cause of the crash.
The FAA and Boeing have been finalizing a software fix for an obscure anti-stall measure created for the 737 Max that came to light with the Indonesia tragedy. The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, triggered by an erroneous sensor reading, had baffled pilots by pushing the Lion Air plane downward dozens of times before it crashed.
As questions swirled around the occurrence of two deadly accidents in quick succession, a rarity for a modern jetliner, aviation officials cautioned against prematurely drawing conclusions. Some large Max operators vouched for the jet’s safety.
“We have full confidence in the aircraft and our crew members, who are the best and most experienced in the industry,” American Airlines Group Inc., the world’s largest carrier, said in a statement. The company operates 24 of the Max 8 models.
The doomed Ethiopian jetliner left Addis Ababa at 8:38 a.m. local time, and contact was lost six minutes later, the company said in a statement. There were people from 35 nations on board, including 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians, nine Ethiopians and eight Americans. The United Nations, which is hosting an environmental conference this week in Nairobi, said it lost 19 staff members in the crash.
The aircraft bore the registration ET-AVJ and was delivered new on Nov. 15, according to Flight Global’s Cirium database. The plane was powered by two Leap-1B engines made by CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric Co. and Safran SA.
While Africa has a generally poor aviation safety record compared with global norms, Ethiopian Airlines is known for operating a modern fleet that features Boeing 787 Dreamliners and the latest Airbus SE A350, as well as the 737 Max.
The state-owned airline, Africa’s only consistently profitable carrier, has built Addis Ababa into a major hub feeding travelers from around the world into dozens of African cities in competition with rivals such as Dubai-based Emirates.
Captain Yared Getachew had amassed more than 8,000 flight hours, according to the airline, while first officer Ahmed Nur Mohammod had spent about 200 hours aloft. The plane that crashed had flown about 1,200 hours, the airline’s CEO said.
The Boeing single-aisle model, revamped with larger engines, is the latest version of a jetliner that has formed the backbone of global fleets for five decades. Southwest Airlines Co. is the largest customer, and other prominent buyers include United Continental Holdings Inc. and Ryanair Holdings Plc.
The sweeping international customer base for the Max, Boeing’s largest seller with more than 5,000 orders, means the company faces scrutiny beyond the typical parties to an accident investigation. With India’s Jet Airways and SpiceJet prominent 737 Max customers, the country’s regulators have said they are seeking information from Boeing and may require additional safety measures.
The Lion Air tragedy in Indonesia, like the Ethiopian Airlines crash, occurred shortly after takeoff. Data from the Indonesian jet’s flight recorder showed that an errant sensor had signaled that the plane was in danger of stalling, causing the MCAS software to push the aircraft’s nose downward.
The pilots on the Lion Air jet counteracted the movement repeatedly, but the cycle repeated itself more than two dozen times before the plane entered its final dive. The accident inflamed controversy over pilot training for the 737 Max, since Boeing hadn’t flagged the anti-stall feature in training materials or most flight crew manuals.
There isn’t any direct evidence linking the disaster with this weekend’s tragedy in Ethiopia at this point.
Southwest, which has 31 Max 8 planes, said it was in contact with Boeing about the Ethiopian crash. The Dallas-based carrier said it remained “confident in the safety and airworthiness of our fleet of more than 750 Boeing aircraft.” American said it would closely monitor the investigation.
As of last week, Southwest and American hadn’t yet received any information from Boeing about the promised MCAS software patch, although neither carrier says its planes have experienced any problems with the system.
“It is too early to draw conclusions,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the pilots union at American. “We fly the 737 Max, so we’re aware of its recent history, and we’re watching this as part of our last line of defense for our passengers and maintaining a safe operation.”
(Updates with report about possible China action in fourth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Anurag Kotoky, Alan Levin, Nizar Manek, Bella Genga and Christopher Jasper.
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