The first Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet delivered to Ethiopian Airlines takes off in July 2018. (Boeing Photo)
The Federal Aviation Administration today responded to concerns over Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets by reassuring airlines that the planes were airworthy, despite the fact that the model was involved in two catastrophic fatal accidents in the past five months.
All 157 people aboard a 737-8 were killed on Sunday, just minutes after the takeoff of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, heading from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Nairobi in Kenya. In its “Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community,” the FAA acknowledged that many reports have pointed out similarities to the crash of Lion Flight 610 last October, in which 189 people dled.
“However, this investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions,” the notification said.
Airlines in China, Ethiopia, Indonesia and several other countries grounded their 737 MAX 8 jets, pending verification that the planes are safe. It’s not yet clear what effect the FAA’s confirmation of airworthiness will have on those suspensions in service.
The FAA has dispatched experts to assist Ethiopian investigators on the ground, Experts from the National Transportation Safety Board, GE Aviation, Boeing and Kenya’s civil aviation agency are on the case as well.
“All data will be closely examined, and the FAA will take appropriate action if the data indicates the need to do so,” the FAA said.
Preliminary findings from the Lion Air crash investigation focused on an automatic control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. The system is meant as a safeguard to keep the plane from stalling under extreme aerodynamic conditions, but there were some signs that the system on the Lion Air 737-8 was receiving spurious data from an angle-of-attack sensor.
Today’s notification reviewed actions taken by the FAA to ensure that Boeing’s prescribed safety procedures were adequate. The FAA also noted that some actions are still in process. For instance, Boeing is working on design changes to the MCAS system that will result in less reliance on “procedures associated with required pilot memory items.”
“The FAA anticipates mandating these design changes by AD [airworthiness directive] no later than April 2019,” the agency said.
Boeing will also update its training requirements and flight crew manuals to reflect the design changes for 737-8 and 737-9 models, The FAA said.
The Ethiopian plane’s two “black boxes” — the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder — have been recovered from crash debris, but it’s not yet clear how much data can be retrieved. One witness told The Associated Press that smoke was coming from the rear of the plane before it hit the ground.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urged the FAA to ground all 737 MAX 8 jets “until their safe use has been confirmed.” The FAA didn’t indicate it would take that step, but promised to take “immediate and appropriate action” if it identifies an issue that affects safety.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao echoed that view: “I want travelers to be assured that we are taking this seriously and monitoring latest developments.”
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, meanwhile, voiced confidence in the 737 MAX line, which is produced at the company’s factory in Renton, Wash.
“We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX and in the work of the men and women who design and build it,” Muilenburg said in an email to employees. “Since its certification and entry into service, the MAX family has completed hundreds of thousands of flights safely.”
He acknowledged that dealing with Sunday’s tragedy was “especially challenging” because it came so soon after the Lion Air crash.
“While difficult, I encourage everyone to stay focused on the important work we do,” Muilenburg wrote.
#breaking @boeing CEO to employees: Since its certification and entry into service, the MAX family has completed hundreds of thousands of flights safely. We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX and in the work of the men and women who design and build it. pic.twitter.com/csK8g9EJh6
— Kris Van Cleave (@krisvancleave) March 11, 2019