Editor's note:This article updates a piece written this morning regarding the United States' decision not to ground Boeing 737 MAX models following the second deadly crash in five months. The original aritcle is available here.
WASHINGTON - The United States joined nearly every other nation when agencies, the executive branch, and industry agreed to ground Boeing 737 MAX passenger jets in the early afternoon hours Eastern Daylight Time today. The move comes in the aftermath of the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight on Sunday.
While the cause of the crash has not yet been determined, preliminary observations show similarities with another crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people in October, 2018. Both crashes involved new aircraft with experienced pilots that crashed shortly after takeoff in Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.
This afternoon, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that "We're going to be issuing an emergency order of prohibition to ground all flights of the 737 MAX 8 and the 737 MAX 9 and planes associated with that line." The United States was the last major country or major airline around the world to ground the aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a statement shortly after President Trump's announcement. "The agency made this decision as a result of the data gathering process and new evidence collected at the site and analyzed today," read the statement. "This evidence, together with newly-refined satellite data available to the FAA this morning, led to this decision. The grounding will remain in effect pending further investigation, including examination of information from the aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder."
The FAA's sentiment was echoed by Boeing, who noted they were supporting the move to ground the jets "out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft's safety."
Boeing's news release said that the company was recommending that the FAA temporarily suspend operations of the entire global fleet of 737 MAX aircraft.
Currently, there are 371 737 MAX passenger jets in use around the globe, with 95 of the jets flying for Chinese carriers. There are 74 in use with carriers in the United States, including United Airlines, American Airlines, and Southwest Airlines.
President Trump noted that the aircraft would remain grounded until further notice. "Pilots have been notified. Airlines have been all notified. Airlines are agreeing with this," he said.
With the announcement, U.S. carriers like United, American, and Southwest were tasked with finding alternative accommodations for its passengers who had booked seats on 737 MAX jets.
"American Airlines has 24 aircraft affected by this directive," the company explained in an email sent to Intelligent Aerospace. "We appreciate the FAA’s partnership, and will continue to work closely with them, the Department of Transportation, National Transportation Safety Board and other regulatory authorities, as well as our aircraft and engine manufacturers. Our teams will make every effort to rebook customers as quickly as possible, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”
Southwest noted that "any customer booked on a cancelled MAX 8 flight can rebook on alternate flights without any additional fees or fare differences within 14 days of their original date of travel between the original city pairs. A Travel Advisory with additional information for Customers will be posted on Southwest.com."
United Airlines noted in a release that the impact on passengers should not be "significant."
"Our MAX aircraft account for roughly 40 flights a day and through a combination of spare aircraft and rebooking customers, we do not anticipate a significant operation impact as a result of this order," wrote United. "We will continue to work with our customers to help minimize any disruption to their travel…Customers do not need to cancel and rebook as we will swap aircraft or automatically rebook you.”
On March 11, Boeing announced that software enhancements for the MAX line of aircraft were in the process of being mandated by the FAA with an Airworthiness Directive "no later than April."
"For the past several months and in the aftermath of Lion Air Flight 610, Boeing has been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer," wrote Boeing in a release dated March 11, 2019. "This includes updates to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight control law, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training. The enhanced flight control law incorporates angle of attack (AOA) inputs, limits stabilizer trim commands in response to an erroneous angle of attack reading and provides a limit to the stabilizer command in order to retain elevator authority."
In the Indonesian crash, it appears that pilots failed to disengage the autopilot when the nose of the jet began pitching up and down. Following that tragedy, the Dallas Morning News and ABC News obtained accounts from reports made to NASA that two U.S. pilots experienced their aircraft’s nose pointed downward after engaging autopilot. The two pilots were able to turn off the autopilot and corrected the issue to climb as planned. It is unknown at this time if the Ethiopian Airlines crash is related in any way to what occurred in the Lion Air incident.
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