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Second crash of new Boeing 737 MAX 8 aggravates safety concerns

By Aaron Gregg | The Washington Post
A plane crash that killed 157 in Ethiopia on Sunday morning is likely to aggravate concerns over the safety of one of Boeing’s newest commercial jets, aviation analysts say. The tragedy comes as the company faces intense scrutiny over another deadly plane crash involving the same plane, the 737 MAX8.
In a statement addressing the crash, Boeing said it has a technical team prepared to provide assistance at the direction of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.


“Boeing is deeply saddened to learn of the passengers and crew on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a 737 MAX 8 airplane,” Boeing said in a statement. “We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board and stand ready to support the Ethiopian Airlines team.”
With an investigation into the causes of the crash in its earliest phases, it’s too early to know whether the Ethiopia crash was caused by the same issues that doomed an Indonesian flight.
An Ethiopian Airlines executives said Sunday that the airplane had “no technical remarks” and was flown by an experienced pilot. He said the pilot mentioned he had difficulty and wanted to return, before losing contact with air traffic control.
Aviation analysts say they are anxiously awaiting the results of the Indonesian airline’s investigation, suggesting the company’s future business could be affected if any parallels are found.
“If this has any relationship at all with (the) Lion Air incident, it’s a pretty good bet that the (Federal Aviation Administration) will move to have all 737 MAX aircraft inspected immediately,” said Mike Boyd, an aviation analyst with Boyd Group International. If the results of such an inspection turn up significant design flaws in the 737 MAX, it could lead the planes to be grounded worldwide, he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a brief statement saying it was planning to assist in the investigation of the crash, which killed eight Americans and 18 Canadians.
“The FAA is closely monitoring developments in the Ethiopian Flight 302 crash early this morning,” the agency said in a statement. “We are in contact with the State Department and plan to join the NTSB in its assistance with Ethiopian civil aviation authorities to investigate the crash.”
So far Boeing’s investors and customers seem to have shrugged off the issues related to the Lion Air crash. Boeing had a banner year last year amid accelerating international sales of its commercial jetliners. The 737 is the best-selling plane model in its history.
The 737 MAX8 has been an important driver of business for Boeing since it was introduced in 2017, and it is critical to Boeing’s broader international ambitions as it competes with its European rival, Airbus.
Boeing has delivered 354 of the jets globally and has another 2,912 on order, according to market estimates maintained by Boyd Group International. The jet that crashed Sunday morning was one of five 737 MAX 8’s operated by Ethiopian Airlines, which has another 25 on order. In the United States, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have 59 of them between their two fleets, with another 304 on order.
The Indonesia plane crash turned a harsh spotlight on the MAX 8, Boeing’s latest update to its workhorse 737. A preliminary investigative report released in late November found that a malfunctioning sensor and an automated response from the aircraft’s software left pilots to fight furiously to control the aircraft before it careened into the Java Sea outside Indonesia shortly after takeoff, killing 189 people.
The report found that a sensor measuring the plane’s “angle of attack” fed erroneous data into the plane’s flight control system, at which point an automatic feature kicked in, sending the plane into a nose dive.
The report stopped short of assigning blame for the crash. But the company quickly received criticism from multiple pilots organizations in the United States after Boeing disclosed that it had made certain changes to the MAX’s autopilot software — adding a new flight control feature called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.
The new software was meant to account for design changes to the 737 MAX, seeking to make the plane operate as similarly as possible to older 737 models despite having larger engines placed farther forward on the plane’s wings.
While the MCAS system was ostensibly added to make the plane safer, pilot unions in the United States said they had been left “in the dark” about the new software update, and initially criticized Boeing for failing to cover the new system in pilot training.
A Boeing spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the company had updated the MCAS system following the Indonesia plane crash. Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, a union that represents pilots at American Airlines, said Boeing executives had initially told his members that the company had been looking at potential software design issues, but had not received any word about whether the system had been changed. He also said pilots at American Airlines still do not have flight simulators reflecting updates to the MAX 8.
“We have not been briefed on any changes to the software at this point,” Tajer said.
The company has not seen any orders of new 737’s cancelled as a result of the crash. But airlines considering future orders will be watching the situation in Ethiopia closely.


“You now have had two 737 MAX 8s that have crashed shortly after takeoff. … The airlines are going to be very interested to know whether this was a problem with the airplane, the training, or both,” said Henry Harteveldt, an aviation market analyst with Atmosphere Research. “For airlines that are debating whether to order the (Boeing 737) MAX and how that would compare to other planes on the market, it’s very possible that tomorrow Airbus reps will get a few calls from people that have been considering Boeing.”
There is also the possibility that the crash could cause a broader backlash on the part of customers, who might prefer to wait for the results of the investigation before choosing to fly in a 737 MAX8.
The Washington Post’s Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.

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