B-737 Max 8 airliner under scrutiny as several airlines ground fleet; recovered black boxes hold clues to crash

Several international carriers have halted the use of Boeing 737 Max 8 planes after the deadly Ethiopia crash.
A Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane delivered to Air China during a ceremony at Boeing Zhoushan 737 Completion and Delivery Center in Zhoushan, in China's eastern Zhejiang province.
A Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane delivered to Air China during a ceremony at Boeing Zhoushan 737 Completion and Delivery Center in Zhoushan, in China's eastern Zhejiang province. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Several countries grounded their fleets of Boeing’s latest 737 model, in the wake of Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash, while the plane-maker’s stock plunged almost 12 per cent in early trading – its biggest drop since September 2001.

Amid the newest crisis surrounding the aviation industry, investigators have started to piece together the final moments of the doomed flight, after the plane’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder – commonly referred to as the black boxes – were recovered on Monday (March 11).

Analysis of the recorders that contain critical information will hopefully reveal why the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed, killing all 157 people on board and perhaps more important, whether similar factors led to the crash of the same aircraft type operated by Lion Air last October.

Aviation regulators and airlines, though, are not waiting for the answers before they act.

China and Indonesia have reportedly ordered their airlines to ground their B-737 Max 8 fleet, a move which at least one analyst has described as an “over-reaction”.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has told airlines it believes the B-737 Max 8 remains airworthy. FAA said in a notice: "External reports are drawing similarities between this accident and the Lion Air Flight 610 accident on October 29, 2018... However, this investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions.”  

Europe's air safety regulator, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has, meanwhile, said it will "immediately publish any further information on our website as the necessary information is available”.

Mr Michael Daniel, a retired air crash investigator who now runs his own consultancy, told The Straits Times: “Precautions are necessary but I don’t think a grounding is, at this time.” He suggested that the decision could be linked to the current US–China trade tensions.

Ethiopian Airlines grounded its fleet the day Flight ET 302 which was bound for Nairobi (Kenya), went down soon after it left Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia at 8.38am local time.

 
 
 

Cayman Airways, the main carrier of the Cayman Islands, has also stopped flying its B-737 Max 8 jets. South Korea has begun a special inspection of the aircraft.

Singapore Airlines’ regional arm, SilkAir, which has six of the jets said its planes are operating as scheduled and that the airline is monitoring the situation closely.

A spokesman said: “The safety of our passengers and crew is of utmost importance.”

SilkAir currently operates the aircraft to Bengaluru, Cairns, Chongqing, Darwin, Hiroshima, Hyderabad, Kathmandu, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Phnom Penh, Phuket and Wuhan.

The airline has also issued a two-page memo to its pilots to remind them of the need to be “preemptive and be conservative to ensure continued safe operations”, The Straits Times found out.

“Have confidence in taking off the automations and fly the aircraft manually whenever you suspect unreliable indications,” pilots are told.

While a final report is not out yet, the Lion Air crash is believed to have been caused by erroneous cockpit readings that suggested the nose of the plane was tilted higher than it was.

Of the 378 B-737 Max 8 aircraft flying around the world today, about 100 belong to Chinese carriers and 20 to airlines based in South-east Asia. 

US carrier Southwest Airlines has the largest fleet of B-737 Max 8 planes, followed by Europe’s Ryanair.

For Boeing, which is already facing law suits after the Lion Air crash, Sunday’s accident is another major blow, analysts said. “Boeing has lost control of the timetable to provide the safe, reliable solution,” aviation consultant Neil Hansford told Bloomberg. 

The single-aisle B-737 family has been a huge success for Boeing, with the B-737 Max, the latest version which started flying just two years ago. Last year, more than seven in 10 of Boeing’s deliveries were 737 planes.

Following Sunday’s crash, Boeing has postponed the debut of its new 777X jet, which was scheduled for this week.