GORA-BOKKA, ETHIOPIA/OTTAWA (REUTERS) - The United States on Wednesday joined Europe, China and other countries in grounding Boeing's 737 Max jets, because of safety concerns after an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash that killed 157 people, the second disaster involving the 737 in less than five months.
The world's biggest planemaker is facing its most serious crisis in years, as the decades-old 737 programme, one of its most reliable sources of cash and profits, takes a severe blow to its prestige.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cited new satellite data and evidence from the scene of Sunday's crash near Addis Ababa for its decision to ground the planes.
It was the second time the FAA has halted flights of a Boeing plane in six years. It had grounded the 787 Dreamliner in 2013 because of problems with smoking batteries.
Shares of the Seattle-based company ended up 0.5 per cent at US$377.14, recovering from a more than 3 per cent fall in the afternoon when the FAA announcement was made.
Tim Ghriskey, chief investment strategist at Inverness Counsel in New York, said the grounding gives Boeing time to address any problems and not face another potential disaster.
US airlines that operate the 737 Max, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines Group and United Airlines, said they were working to re-book passengers.
Southwest is the world's largest operator of the 737 Max 8 with 34 jets, while American flies 24 Max 8s and United 14 Max 9s.
Shares of Southwest fell 0.4 per cent.
"The agency made this decision as a result of the data gathering process and new evidence collected at the site and analysed today," the FAA said in a statement, shortly after US President Donald Trump announced the planes would be grounded.
"This evidence, together with newly refined satellite data available to FAA this morning, led to this decision."
The grounding will remain in effect as the FAA investigates.
Boeing, which maintained that its planes were safe to fly, said in a statement that it supported the move to temporarily ground 737 Max flights.
"Boeing has determined - out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft's safety - to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 Max aircraft."
The still-unexplained crash followed another involving a Boeing 737 Max in Indonesia five months ago that killed 189 people. Although there is no proof of any link, the twin disasters have spooked passengers.
France's air accident investigation agency BEA will analyse black-box cockpit voice and data recorders from the crashed plane, a spokesman said.
The French announcement resolved uncertainty over the fate of the two recorders after Germany's BFU said it had declined a request to handle them because it could not process the new type of recorder used on the 737 Max jets, in service since 2017.
Travel website Kayak was making changes to let customers exclude specific aircraft types from searches, and booking sites were looking to reroute passengers.
The grounding was welcomed by air workers in the United States. John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union of America, which represent aviation workers and flight attendants, said the grounding of the fleet was right "both for air travellers and aviation workers."
NEW SATELLITE DATA
Canada also grounded 737 Max jets on Wednesday, saying satellite data suggested similarities to the previous crash involving the same plane model in October.
US-based aircraft-tracking firm Aireon provided the satellite data to the FAA, Transport Canada and several other authorities, company spokeswoman Jessie Hillenbrand said.
Aireon's space-based system can monitor data from aircraft equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders. The data is considered less detailed than that in black boxes, which look at systems running inside the plane.
Germany's federal agency responsible for investigating air accidents said it would not analyse the damaged black boxes from the Ethiopian Airlines plane, casting uncertainty over the process of finding out what may have caused the disaster. The US FAA said the black boxes were headed to France later on Wednesday.
Ethiopian Airlines spokesman Asrat Begashaw said it was still unclear what happened on Sunday, but its pilot had reported control issues as opposed to external factors such as birds.
"The pilot reported flight control problems and requested to turn back. In fact he was allowed to turn back," he said.
The chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Democrat Peter DeFazio, called for a probe into why the 737 Max received certification to fly.
"There must be a rigorous investigation into why the aircraft, which has critical safety systems that did not exist on prior models, was certified without requiring additional pilot training," he said.
PAYING RESPECTS AT THE SITE
At the rural site where Flight ET 302, which was bound for the Kenyan capital Nairobi, came down near the village of Gora-Bokka, dozens of grief-stricken relatives paid their respects.
Only charred fragments of victims remain, meaning it will take weeks to identify all of them using dental or DNA testing.
The passengers came from more than 30 nations.
One elderly couple collapsed into each other's arms after strewing flowers in front of a picture of a smiling young woman, while a family propped each other up, tears coursing down their faces. Another shrine showed images of a young couple embracing.
Since the Indonesia crash, there has been a focus on an automated anti-stall system in the 737 Max that dips the aircraft's nose down.
Many airlines were keeping to schedule by using other jets while economic woes meant some may be grateful for a pause. The biggest impact could be on future deliveries given Boeing has nearly 5,000 more 737 Max planes on order.
India said it would not take any deliveries until safety concerns were cleared and Ethiopian Airlines said it would decide whether to cancel orders after a preliminary probe.
Passengers were fretting too, with many seeking reassurances they would not be flying on a 737 Max. Kayak.com was the first big site to say it would modify filters to allow customers to exclude particular types of planes from queries.
BOEING'S APPEAL TO TRUMP
The pilots' union for Southwest Airlines, which has the largest 737 Max fleet in the world with 34 aircraft, said on Wednesday that it remained confident in the model even after Canada's decision to ground the jet.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal suggested on Twitter that an upcoming hearing on the crash would focus on that conversation. "Chief exec's personal plea to Trump leaves more questions than answers," he said.
Norwegian Air said it would seek recompense for lost revenue and extra costs after grounding its 737 Max aircraft.
The new variant of the world's most-sold modern passenger aircraft was viewed as the likely workhorse for airlines for decades. But October's Lion Air crash in Indonesia sparked a debate on automation, particularly over a software system designed to push the plane down to stop a stall during flight.
The United Arab Emirates' aviation regulator said on Tuesday there were "marked similarities" between the crashes, and China's regulator noted both occurred shortly after take-off.
In November, two incidents were reported to the Nasa-run Aviation Safety Reporting Database that involved problems in controlling the 737 Max at low altitude just after take-off with autopilot engaged, according to documents first published by the Dallas Morning News and verified by Reuters.
"We discussed the departure at length and I reviewed in my mind our automation setup and flight profile but can't think of any reason the aircraft would pitch nose down so aggressively,"one pilot said.