FAA holds off grounding Boeing planes after crash


The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday it doesn’t plan to ground Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX planes, despite concerns by other countries, passengers and airline employees after the model’s second crash in less than five months.

Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are parked at a Boeing production facility in Renton, Washington. (Reuters file photo)  Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are parked at a Boeing production facility in Renton, Washington. (Reuters file photo)

“This investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions,” the FAA said in an update to airlines, referring to Sunday’s deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash. The agency said it expected by the end of April to mandate a software fix for an automated flight-control system that played a central role in the first crash involving the plane model, in Indonesia.

Many of the biggest 737 MAX operators continued to fly the plane Monday, including its major US customers: American Airlines Group Inc., Southwest Airlines Co. and United Continental Holdings Inc.

Boeing said it was in talks with regulators and airlines about concerns they may have. “We are taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this accident, working closely with the investigating team and all regulatory authorities involved,” the Chicago-based plane maker said.

China and Indonesia, two important markets for Boeing, grounded their 737 MAX 8 fleets after the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines jet outside Addis Ababa on Sunday, which killed all 157 aboard. In October, a Lion Air plane plunged from the sky near Jakarta, killing all 189 passengers and crew. On Tuesday, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore suspended all variants of the 737 MAX into and out of Singapore. A number of smaller airlines also grounded their MAX fleets.

Li Jian, a deputy director of China’s aviation authority, alluded in remarks to several previously unreported incidents in which he said Chinese 737 MAX pilots received unreliable readings from sensors used to ensure the airplane is flying at the correct angle. He said the plane model was being grounded because regulators are “uncertain whether pilots have the courage or capability to fly” the MAX.

Investigators said Monday that they had found the black box data recorders from the Ethiopian Airlines plane. The discovery could speed the investigation, though analyzing the data could take several days.

Investigators hadn’t made any link between the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes, with parallel investigations under way. The Lion Air plane suffered unreliable sensor information before it went down. Investigators also are probing that airline’s maintenance of the plane and potential pilot errors. Both planes crashed shortly after takeoff.

“I know this tragedy is especially challenging coming only months after the loss of Lion Air Flight 610,” Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg said in an internal message to employees Monday. “We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX,” he added.

Following the Lion Air crash, the FAA and Boeing had been expected to roll out a software fix to an automatic flight-control system suspected of misfiring. The changes were initially expected in early January, but talks between regulators and the plane maker dragged on partly over differences of opinion about technical and engineering issues, a person familiar with the details said at the time.

The software fix would be issued in conjunction with updates to certain pilot-training and crew manuals to stress the details of the stall-prevention system and how to turn it off in case of a malfunction.

Boeing said it has delivered more than 370 of the planes, almost all of them MAX 8s. As of January, Boeing had more than 5,000 orders for the jet, which includes a MAX 9 variation and two other versions, the MAX 7 and MAX 10, which have yet to be delivered to customers.

The popularity of the MAX jets raises the stakes for Boeing. The MAX models represent about two-thirds of Boeing’s future deliveries and about 40% of its profit, analysts estimate. Boeing cranks out 737s at the unprecedented pace of 52 planes a month. By year’s end that is expected to jump to 57 planes a month, and Boeing has said demand may be strong enough to go even higher.

Concerns about the MAX weighed Monday on Boeing’s stock, which fell 5.3% to $400.01, its biggest drop in more than four months. The shares were down as much as 13% earlier in the day.

The aerospace company had accounted for 32% of the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s year-to-date rise through Friday, according to Dow Jones Market Data, and remained 2019’s biggest percentage gainer in the index after the selloff Monday. (WSJ)