US airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration are coming under heavy pressure from politicians, passengers and some unions to ground the Boeing 737 Max aircraft involved in two deadly crashes in five months. The FAA is one of the few major aviation regulators to allow the 737 Max to remain in the air after a number of authorities grounded the plane or banned it from their skies. That has led to what experts say is an unprecedented rift between the world’s main flight safety agencies. Boeing and the FAA were facing the prospect of congressional hearings into the issue, as a growing number of politicians weighed in to demand action and it emerged that pilots had reported problems with the Max 8’s automated flight control system that was believed to be involved in a Lion Air crash in October in Indonesia. The FAA maintained that the plane was safe in a new statement released late on Tuesday.
That came at the end of a day when European and Asian regulators acted to stop flights of the aircraft, a new version of Boeing’s best-selling 737. The EU issued a continent-wide ban of both the Max 8 and the Max 9, another variant of the plane. The FAA said other civil aviation authorities had provided no data that would merit a grounding, adding: “The FAA continues to review extensively all available data and aggregate safety performance from operators and pilots of the Boeing 737 Max.
Thus far our review shows no systematic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, the two US carriers that fly the jet, also continued to defend it as safe, as did pilots’ unions for both companies. The Air Line Pilots’ Association International said “we caution against speculation about what may have caused the accident”. Passengers, however, vented their frustration and fear on the social media sites of Southwest and American Airlines. When Southwest customer Tracy Harley asked the airline, via its Twitter account, “how can I see if my flight tomorrow morning is scheduled for a Boeing 737 Max 8?”, Southwest provided a primer on how to see which aircraft is used on which flight. “Hey, Tracy! Great question. To tell if your flight is a Max 8 flight, pretend you’re booking a new flight from the homepage, and click on your specific flight number on the flight selection page of http://Southwest.com — it will be designated as 737 Max 8. — Taylor”
Nerves were frazzled on the Twitter account of American, where one customer said the airline was “pathetic” to trot out the “same canned reply” to every 737 Max question: “We are confident in the safe operation of all our aircraft.” Sunday’s crash of a 737 Max 8 flown by Ethiopian Airlines, in which 157 were killed, came just five months after a Max 8 owned by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the sea shortly after take-off, killing all 189 passengers and crew. A preliminary report on the Lion Air disaster found that pilots had been bedevilled by a new stall-prevention feature on the 737 Max which erroneously kicked in during the flight. At least two US pilots filed complaints to a federal database last year about flaws in the automated flight control system. They complained it caused the nose of their planes to tilt down suddenly, the same problem believed to be at fault in the Lion Air disaster. The database is run independently of the FAA by Nasa, the US space agency, and publicises complaints without revealing the airline involved. One pilot reported that “within two to three seconds” of turning on the autopilot, “the aircraft pitched nose down”. In both cases the pilots were able to override the system to continue their flight safely, as instructed to do so by the FAA in a directive after the Indonesian crash. Pilots’ associations for both American and Southwest have said the 737 Max is safe so long as pilots are trained in how to override the automated system properly. A union representing American Airlines flight attendants called for the planes to be grounded pending an investigation, however. US politicians attacked the decision not to ground the planes. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren said: “The Boeing 737 Max 8 is a major driver of Boeing profits. In the coming weeks and months, Congress should hold hearings on whether an administration that famously refused to stand up to Saudi Arabia to protect Boeing arms sales has once again put lives at risk for the same reason.” Republican senators including Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney also said the planes should be grounded, while the Senate subcommittee on aviation and space, chaired by Mr Cruz, and the commerce committee of the House of Representatives both said they would hold hearings.
Earlier, President Donald Trump weighed in against the automation of modern planes, saying on Twitter that “I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot”. Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing chief executive, spoke with Mr Trump after his tweet, to stress his confidence in the safety of the aircraft, the company said. In Canada — whose two main airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, operate 37 Max 8s between them — transport minister Marc Garneau sided with US authorities, telling reporters there were no plans to ground the planes. Canadian authorities would “act immediately” if new information emerges, he said. New Zealand, India, Vietnam, Bermuda, Fiji, Oman and the United Arab Emirates were among the latest countries to ground the planes. Garuda Indonesia said on Wednesday that was considering dropping its order for 49 planes.
Additional reporting by Stefania Palma