How Safe is the Boeing 737?

The Ethopian Airlines flight is the second crash six months after a Lion Air flight disaster in October 2018, which was flying from Jakarta.
Monday 11 March 2019
It's the second Boeing 737 to go down in the last six months. Photo: AFP

Boeing has been the envy of the international business world this year. But now the company is facing new questions after its second deadly crash in less than six months. All 157 people on board an Ethiopian Airlines flight died after the plane went down shortly after takeoff on 10 March. It follows a Lion Air flight that went down in late October, killing all 189 people on board.

Both the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air flights were brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes. And both crashed minutes into flight. The circumstances of both crashes remain under investigation, and Boeing has presented no evidence to suggest the two incidents are linked. The similarities may be a coincidence.

But if the Ethiopian Airlines crash was caused by the same issue as the Lion Air crash, Boeing might need to quickly implement a package of modifications to its planes and change the way 737 MAX 8 crew are trained, according to Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at Teal Group. If the manufacturer, airlines or customers grow concerned about the 737 MAX 8’s safety, Boeing might have to temporarily ground the new planes or halt deliveries, Aboulafia said.

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For the second time in less than six months, a brand-new Boeing aircraft has crashed minutes into a flight. Photo: CNN International

The 737 MAX is Boeing’s bestseller by far. The two-year-old 737 MAX 8 model in particular is hugely popular (the MAX 9 only recently went on sale and Boeing has not yet delivered the MAX 10). Last year, 72% of Boeing’s deliveries were 737 planes. Boeing plans to make 59 new 737s each month this year – more than four times the number of 787s, Boeing’s next-best seller. Southwest has the largest fleet of 737 MAX 8 airplanes, followed by RyanAir and FlyDubai, according to Boeing. American Airlines and United also fly the MAX 8. Delta does not fly any 737 MAX variants.

Although it’s “way too soon to know anything about this crash,” Aboulafia said that is unlikely to hurt Boeing’s bottom line too much. “Relative to the company’s revenue base, this would not be overly burdensome by any means,” he said.

Boeing said in a statement that it “is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew on Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, a 737 MAX 8 airplane,” The company said it is prepared to provide technical assistance at the request of the US National Transportation Safety Board.

The Ethiopian plane had flown for only 1,400 hours before it crashed, and Ethiopian Airlines has a good safety record. October’s Lion Air crash is believed to be caused by faulty data that suggested the nose was tilted higher than it was. The new safety system installed in the 737 MAX 8 plane automatically pulls the plane’s nose down if data suggests it is at risk.

Boeing’s stock is up 31% this year. It’s the best performer in the Dow this year and the 16th best stock in the S&P 500.

Boeing had its best year ever in 2018, and it expects this year to be even better. The company posted sales of more than US$100 billion for the first time in its 102-year history because of increases in commercial and military jet deliveries. The company delivered a record 806 commercial jets last year, up nearly 6% from 2017.

Details on the Ethopian plane crash

The plane lost contact at 8:44 a.m. local time, six minutes after taking off from Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital. Flight ET302 went down near Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa. The victims were of 35 different nationalities, said a spokesperson.

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A rescue team collects bodies at the Ethiopian Airlines crash site. Photo: AFP

Thirty-two Kenyans, 18 Canadians, nine Ethiopians, eight Americans, eight Italians and eight Chinese nationals were among the passengers. Seven French and seven UK nationals were also on board. The crash killed 157 people, seven of them crew members and one a security official, an airline spokeswoman said. The passengers were from 35 nations, the airline said, with the greatest share from Kenya.

Nineteen United Nations staff members were among those killed, the UN said. The staffers worked for the World Food Programme, the Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees, the International Telecommunications Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization, International Organization for Migration in South Sudan, World Bank and UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, and the UN Office in Nairobi.Though it’s not clear why UN employees were on the plane, the UN Environment Assembly is scheduled to begin Monday in Nairobi.

“My heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all the victims — including our own UN staff — who perished in this tragedy,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. The Ethiopian government expressed its “deepest condolences to the families,” the office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted.

The US National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to support the Ethiopian Accident Investigations Bureau’s investigation, with assistance from technical advisers from the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and General Electric.

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told reporters the pilot reported technical difficulties after takeoff and asked for clearance to return to Addis Ababa. He was given clearance to turn back, GebreMariam said, citing the air traffic controllers’ record. The pilot was a senior Ethiopian Airlines pilot who had flown more than 8,000 hours. He had an “excellent flying record,” GebreMariam said.

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Ethiopian Airlines CEO visited the crash site after the incident occurred on 10 March. Photo: AFP

The CEO visited the crash site Sunday. He said the plane “is now right inside the ground” and it was not possible to identify whether it was an emergency landing or a crash. He said there was still smoke at the site when he visited. “As it is a fresh incident, we have not been able to determine the cause. As I said, it is a brand new airplane with no technical remarks, flown by a senior pilot and there is no cause that we can attribute at this time.” “The routine maintenance check didn’t reveal any problems,” GebreMariam added.

The Chinese government has since announced that they have grounded all Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets. The Civil Aviation Administration of China said in a statement on Monday morning that all domestic Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets would be out of action until 6pm local time, due to its principle of “zero tolerance for safety hazards.”

The move was followed by an announcement from Ethiopian Airlines that the company had already grounded its small fleet of Boeing 737 Max 8 jets as an “extra safety precaution” while investigations into the crash continue.

Source: CNN International

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