Most global airlines – including Air Canada and WestJet – will continue to fly the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft as investigators seek to understand why one of the planes crashed on Sunday, the second in five months, a disaster that again killed all people on board.
On Monday, investigators found the two black box recorders of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. It crashed on Sunday morning near Addis Ababa, not long after takeoff, and 157 people died, including 18 Canadians. The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States said it would take immediate action if it finds a safety issue in its investigation.
However, some carriers moved to ground the plane – a rarity in aviation. China and Indonesia grounded Max 8s flown by their domestic carriers. Other airlines also grounded their Max 8s, including in Morocco and South Africa. Australia and Singapore followed suit on Tuesday. But airlines in Canada, the United States and elsewhere on Monday said they are confident in the Boeing 737 Max 8’s safety.
The Max 8 is a popular new version of the Boeing plane that is a cornerstone of the global fleet of aircraft. The FAA certified the Max 8 two years ago and the plane entered commercial operation soon after, including with Air Canada and WestJet. There are about 350 around the world so far, with more than 40 in Canada. Last October, the first deadly crash occurred, when a Max 8 flown by Lion Air of Indonesia went down near Jakarta, soon after takeoff, killing 189 people.
On Monday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. EST, according to flightaware.com, there were 123 Max 8s airborne. Of those, one-fifth were Canadian: 13 WestJet flights and 11 Air Canada planes. The Canadian Max 8s were on a variety of continental routes such as Miami-to-Toronto and Vancouver-to-Los Angeles, as well as short flights such as Vancouver-to-Calgary.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he believes the plane is safe and that it was premature to consider grounding the aircraft. “This plane has millions of miles of flying,” he said. “If I had to fly somewhere on that type of aircraft today, I would.”
An Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max that crashed on Sunday was fitted with a system called MCAS, or Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. MCAS is intended to help prevent a stall, but could surprise pilots unfamiliar with its action of lowering the plane's nose. A Lion Air 737 that crashed in October was also fitted with MCAS.
Mr. Garneau, in close contact on Monday morning with the FAA and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said the United States will take the lead on the investigation and recommend any necessary action, since it was a U.S-built and -certified aircraft. Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is not directly involved. It has worked on foreign crashes before involving Canadian aircraft or airlines.
“I will not hesitate to take any action necessary when we discover what the cause is,” Mr. Garneau said.
Air Canada and WestJet on Monday reiterated comments they made on Sunday that they are confident in the safety of the Max 8.
“We have extensive analytical data supporting the safety of these aircraft,” an Air Canada statement said.
Tim Perry, a WestJet captain who is the Canadian president of the Air Line Pilots Association International, will pilot a Max 8 on Tuesday to Vancouver from Toronto and then back to Toronto.
“What is my sense of things? That goes to an emotional response – which I don’t think is appropriate,” Mr. Perry said. “We don’t know enough about this incident to call into question the safety of an airplane or an industry. We’ll wait for the data.”
In a statement about the Ethiopian crash, the pilots association said: “We caution against speculation about what may have caused this tragic accident.”
Sunwing Airlines, which has four Max 8s, did not respond to requests for comment.
Boeing stock fell more than 5 per cent on Monday, but the shares remain close to a record high reached early this month. The new plane is a big deal for Boeing. The company has orders for about 5,000 aircraft, from more than 100 customers. The company did not respond to a request for comment from The Globe and Mail.
Boeing said in its statement late Monday that in the aftermath of October’s Lion Air Flight crash, it has for several months “been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer.” The software upgrade “will be deployed across the 737 MAX fleet in the coming weeks,” it said.
According to FlightAware, Boeing conducted several flights of a Max 8 on Sunday and Monday, after the crash in Ethiopia. On Sunday afternoon, a Max 8 departed at 4:33 p.m. PST from Renton, near Seattle. Boeing’s factory in Renton, adjacent to the municipal airport, is where the Max 8s and other new 737s are built. The Boeing flight arrived about 1½ hours later at an airport in Grant County in central Washington State. The plane then departed again immediately for Boeing Field in Seattle – a public airport where Boeing has facilities. It arrived at 6:54 p.m. PST and was there overnight. On Monday, the same Max 8 departed at 11:04 a.m. PST and arrived at the Southern California Logistics Airport, some 145 kilometres northeast of Los Angeles, at 1:09 p.m.
Southwest Airlines said it remains confident in its planes, which includes Max 8s among more than 750 Boeings.
“There are a host of factors we would weigh in making any decision that would impact our operations – internally and with the FAA,” said Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz. “If there is any question about the safety or airworthiness of our fleet, we would not fly the aircraft.”
American Airlines, which has 24 Max 8s in its fleet, said it was closely monitoring the investigation in Ethiopia, “which is our standard protocol for any aircraft accident.”
“We have full confidence in the aircraft,” the airline said in a statement.