Ethiopian Airlines Crash Updates: Canada Grounds Boeing Plane, Leaving U.S. Basically Alone

Ethiopian Airlines Crash Updates: Canada Grounds Boeing Plane, Leaving U.S. Basically Alone

By The New York Times, March 13, 2019

Forensics investigators and recovery personnel at the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash site near Bishoftu, Ethiopia, on Tuesday. Jemal Countess/Getty Images
  • Canada grounds Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 models, pointing to new satellite data suggesting similarities in the Ethiopian and Indonesian crashes. The decision leaves the United States basically alone in allowing the jetliners to keep flying.
  • New developments are pointing to what appeared to be a struggle by pilots of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 to get control of their new Max 8 aircraft minutes after takeoff.
  • Adding to pressure on Boeing, a major customer asked the company to compensate it financially for having to ground the aircraft in Europe.
  • Ethiopia will send overseas for analysis the so-called black boxes — flight data and voice recorders — recovered from the crash site, the airline said.
  • At least two pilots, flying United States routes on the Max 8 filed incident reports with the federal government that raised safety concerns and criticized a lack of training on the new plane.
  • Citing safety concerns, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Vietnam closed their airspace to the Max 8 on Wednesday. The European Union, China and India had previously banned all Max 8 flights.
A floral installation at the site of the crash on Wednesday. Mulugeta Ayene/Associated Press

Canada grounds Boeing Max model

Transport Minister Marc Garneau of Canada grounded all Max 8 and Max 9 planes registered in the country on Wednesday morning. He also banned any entry into Canada’s airspace by the aircraft, a move that may affect operations of carriers based in the United States that continue to operate the planes.

The move by Mr. Garneau was an extraordinary break with his American counterparts on aviation safety policy, and basically left the United States alone as the only major country that has not grounded the planes, which are among Boeing’s best-sellers. Less than a day before, the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States had reaffirmed its view that the plane was safe.

Mr. Garneau said at a news conference that the step had been taken after a review of newly available satellite tracking data — presumably available to aviation regulators everywhere — that suggested similarities in the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday to the crash last October of a Lion Air Max 8 in Indonesia.

The minister said that on Wednesday morning his officials and experts had compared satellite tracking data showing the vertical path of the Ethiopian jet at takeoff with similar data from the Lion Air flight.

A former astronaut and engineer, Mr. Garneau said that there were similarities that “exceed a certain threshold in our minds with respect to the possible cause of what happened in Ethiopia.”

“This is not conclusive, but it is something that points possibly in that direction, and at this point we feel that threshold has been crossed,” he said.

Still, the minister said, “It would be a mistake to say it looks exactly like the one that brought Lion Air down.”

The Canadian government told the office of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in the United States about its decision in advance of the public announcement. When asked if the Americans had pressured Canada not to go ahead, Mr. Garneau said: “Absolutely not.”

Pilots struggled to control the plane within minutes

Shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, the captain of the Ethiopian Airlines jetliner reported “flight-control problems” to air traffic control. That suggests the cockpit crew was having trouble with the mechanical instruments used to handle the aircraft, the computerized systems that fly it, or both.The pilot’s alert was reported Wednesday by a spokesman for the airline, Asrat Begashaw; the airline’s chief executive, Tewolde GebreMariam, made similar remarks to CNN the day before.

Mr. Begashaw said the control tower had granted the crew’s request to return to the airport, and three minutes later it crashed, killing all aboard.

The disclosure added to suggestions that the plane had not responded to intended actions by the pilots. There has been no suggestion so far of terrorism or other outside interference in the functioning of the aircraft, which was only a few months old.

In earlier evidence pointing to the possibility of an intrinsic problem with the aircraft, control issues were reported by the crew of the Lion Air Max 8 that crashed minutes after takeoff in Indonesia last October. And pilots on at least two Max 8 flights in the United States have reported concerns about unexpected dips in the aircraft’s nose after the autopilot was engaged.

AIRLINE STATUS NUMBER OF 737 MAX 8S IN FLEET

Southwest Airlines

In use

34

American Airlines

In use

24

Air Canada

Grounded

24

China Southern Airlines

Grounded

22

Norwegian Air

Grounded

18

TUI Fly

Grounded

15

Air China

Grounded

15

SpiceJet

Grounded

13

WestJet

Grounded

13

Turkish Airlines

Grounded

11

FlyDubai

Grounded

11

Shanghai Airlines

Grounded

11

Hainan Airlines

Grounded

11

Xiamen Airlines

Grounded

10

Lion Air

Grounded

10

Smartwings

Grounded

7

GOL Airlines

Grounded

7

Shandong Airlines

Grounded

7

SilkAir

Grounded

6

Aeromexico

Grounded

6

Shenzhen Airlines

Grounded

6

Jet Airways

Previously grounded

5

LOT

Grounded

5

Oman Air

Grounded

5

Aerolineas Argentinas

Grounded

5

Sunwing Airlines

Grounded

4

China Eastern Airlines

Grounded

4

Ethiopian Airlines

Grounded

4

Icelandair

Grounded

3

Air Italy

Grounded

3

Lucky Air

Grounded

3

Enter Air

Grounded

2

Fiji Airways

Grounded

2

S7 Airlines

Grounded

2

Cayman Airways

Grounded

2

Fuzhou Airlines

Grounded

2

Kunming Airlines

Grounded

2

Okay Airways

Grounded

2

Eastar Jet

Grounded

2

Mauritania Airlines

Unknown

1

Corendon Airlines

Grounded

1

SCAT Airlines

Grounded

1

9 Air

Grounded

1

Royal Air Maroc

Grounded

1

Comair

Grounded

1

MIAT Mongolian Airlines

Grounded

1

Garuda Indonesia

Grounded

1

Sources: Airlines, Flightradar24. Notes: Jet Airways hasn’t flown any of its Max 8s since the beginning of March due to financial distress.

By Jin Wu and Allison McCann

Mr. Begashaw declined to specify what control problems may have led to the crash on Sunday, which killed all 157 people aboard.

He also said Ethiopia would ask a foreign country for help analyzing the flight data and voice recorders, known as the black boxes, which recovered from the wreckage. Mr. Begashaw said the airline had not yet decided where to send the black boxes, which investigators believe may be critical to determining the cause of the crash.

American air safety experts are trying to persuade their Ethiopian counterparts not to send the flight data to crash investigators in London, The Wall Street Journal reported. Instead, they want it examined by the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States.

The cockpit of a Jet Airways Boeing 737 Max 8. Two fatal Max 8 crashes in five months have led to intense scrutiny of the aircraft. Abhirup Roy/Reuters

Pilots on U.S. routes had reported concerns about the Max 8

At least two pilots who flew Boeing 737 Max 8 planes on routes in the United States had raised concerns in November about the noses of their planes suddenly dipping after engaging autopilot, according to a federal government database of incident reports.

The problems the pilots experienced appeared similar to those preceding the October crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia, in which 189 people were killed. The cause of that crash remains under investigation, but it is believed that inaccurate readings fed into the Max 8’s computerized system may have made the plane enter a sudden, automatic descent.

In both of the American cases, the pilots safely resumed their climbs after turning off autopilot. One of the pilots said the descent began two to three seconds after turning on the automated system.

Boeing 737 Max 8 Jets Are Grounded Nearly Everywhere

The jets typically make more than 8,500 flights per week worldwide.

“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,” the pilot wrote.

A pilot on a separate flight reported in November a similar descent and hearing the same warnings in the cockpit, and said neither of the pilots on board was able to find an inappropriate setup.

“With the concerns with the MAX 8 nose down stuff, we both thought it appropriate to bring it to your attention,” the pilot said.

The complaints were listed in a public database maintained by NASA and filled with thousands of reports, which pilots file when they encounter errors or issues. The database does not include identifying information on the flights, including airline, the pilot’s name or the location.

Another pilot wrote of having been given insufficient training to fly the Max 8, a new, more fuel-efficient version of Boeing’s best-selling 737.

“I think it is unconscionable that a manufacturer, the F.A.A., and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models,” the pilot wrote.

The pilot continued: “I am left to wonder: what else don’t I know? The Flight Manual is inadequate and almost criminally insufficient.”

Boeing has said the planes are safe to fly, but has pledged to upgrade their software and improve pilot training. News of the incident reports was first reported by The Dallas Morning News and confirmed by The New York Times.

Foreign investigators examining wreckage at the site. Mulugeta Ayene/Associated Press

Other countries ban 737 Max 8 flights

Egypt, Vietnam and Kazakhstan banned flights by the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft on Wednesday. More than 41 countries have grounded the planes.

Hong Kong, a Chinese territory with its own aviation authorities, also announced a ban in its airspace on Tuesday.

In addition to the countries ordering the grounding of the planes, at least 34 airlines have idled their Max 8 aircraft.

Sunwing, a Canadian carrier, said on Tuesday that it was temporarily grounding its four planes, before Canada issued the broader order on Wednesday.

In a statement, the company said the step had been “unrelated to safety.” Instead, the airline said, the move was prompted by growing airspace bans by countries and “evolving commercial reasons.”

Norwegian Air said on Wednesday that it would seek compensation from Boeing following European regulators’ decision to ground 737 Max 8 jets. Johan Nilsson/EPA, via Shutterstock

Norwegian Air says it wants compensation from Boeing

Norwegian Air, a low-cost airline that has one of the largest Max 8 fleets outside the United States, said it would seek compensation from Boeing after European regulators grounded the aircraft.

“It is obvious that the costs incurred by the temporary grounding of brand-new aircraft should be covered by those who have made the airplane,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday.

Belying its name, Norwegian flies routes all over Europe and beyond. According to the airline’s website, flights to European destinations were running with moderate delays and a handful of cancellations.

In a message to passengers, the airline said that it had 18 Max 8 aircraft in its fleet of more than 160 planes.

Kayak will let travelers filter searches by aircraft type

At least one travel booking search engine is trying to help customers avoid 737 Max aircraft that are still in service.

Kayak announced it would soon allow users to filter their flight results by aircraft type. In a statement, the company said the update was a response to user requests.

”We’ve recently received feedback to make Kayak’s filters more granular in order to exclude particular aircraft models from search queries,” the company said.

Ethiopian religious leaders prayed at the house of a crash victim, Sara Gebremichael, who was a flight attendant, in Addis Ababa. Samuel Habtab/Associated Press

After grounding planes, China’s flights are delayed — as usual

Nobody has grounded more Boeing 737 Max 8 jets than China. With its order on Monday that Chinese airlines idle their fleets of the aircraft, 96 went out of commission.

How did that affect flying in China? Not a whole lot, even on the first day.

Chinese airline canceled 62 flights outright on Monday because of the grounding, according to VariFlight, an online tracking company. For another 288, it found substitute aircraft, while five flights were completed before the grounding took effect.

That represents a minor ripple in what has become some of the busiest airspace in the world. According to Chinese safety regulators, last year an average of 15,000 flights took off every day. Chinese airlines represent 14 percent of global traffic, according to figures from Boeing, and could account for one-fifth in two decades’ time.

China has room for flexibility in other ways.

Flight delays are common in China, so airlines schedule fewer flights per day for each aircraft, leaving more available to potentially fill in. Air traffic controllers and the airlines themselves are highly cautious about allowing planes to fly in poor weather. The military controls most of China’s airspace and frequently closes large areas, resulting in more delays.

For all of those reasons, many Chinese passengers may not have noticed the groundings. Of the Max 8 flights that continued to operate on Monday, mostly with substitute planes, the average delay was 70 minutes.

[We answered readers’ questions about the Boeing 737 Max 8.]

A man who lost his wife in the crash was helped away from the site on Wednesday. Mulugeta Ayene/Associated Press

U.N. aviation agency takes no action on Max 8, for now

While regulators in much of the world have ordered temporary groundings of the Boeing 737 Max 8 as precaution, the United Nations civil aviation agency said it would await definitive findings about what went wrong on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

“Once the final report into this accident is available we will have verified and official causes and recommendations to consider,” the agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The agency, based in Montreal, manages the Convention on International Civil Aviation, the agreement that ensures safe and orderly air travel around the world. According to its website, the agency, which has sanction powers to enforce compliance with the convention, works with United Nations member states and industry groups “in support of a safe, efficient, secure, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible civil aviation sector.”

Reporting was contributed by Russell Goldman, Daniel Victor, Ian Austen, Rick Gladstone, Palko Karasz, Amie Tsang, Selam Gebrekidan and James Glanz.