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Boeing crash fallout spreads as more 737 MAX jets are idled

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Boeing Co.’s woes escalated as European aviation regulators joined Asian and Latin American authorities in grounding the 737 MAX jet, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill urged US airlines to voluntarily park those planes after two deadly crashes of the aircraft in the past five months.

 A Boeing 737 Max takes part in flying display at the 52nd Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, France.(Reuters  File Photo)

A Boeing 737 Max takes part in flying display at the 52nd Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, France.(Reuters File Photo)

The crashes have raised questions about the plane’s flight-control system. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that in response to the first crash in October, Boeing is making a significant change to the software that controls a stall-prevention feature, and that change is more extensive than what many industry officials familiar with the discussions had anticipated.

Tuesday started with Australia, Malaysia and Singapore deciding to suspend the plane’s operations, joining China, Indonesia and several carriers in Latin America. Then, European aviation regulators broke ranks with their US counterparts and grounded the aircraft, forcing some planes to return to their departing airport midflight.

The suspensions marked an unusual departure for foreign regulators, who typically adhere to guidance from the US Federal Aviation Administration regarding US-built aircraft.

President Trump wrote Tuesday on Twitter that “airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly,” without singling out Boeing or the 737 MAX. “Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger.”

Mr. Trump spoke with Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg on Tuesday morning, according to a White House official. Mr. Muilenburg expressed confidence in the safety of 737 MAX during the call, a person familiar with the matter said. The White House didn’t respond to questions about whether Mr. Trump believes the planes should be grounded.

Several lawmakers, including Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), called for the planes to be grounded in the US pending a probe.

“It would make sense to ground the aircraft in the US until we have a full report on what has been the cause of these last two crashes,” Mr. Romney said.

Boeing has maintained the jet is safe to fly after Sunday’s deadly crash in Ethiopia and a crash of another 737 MAX 8 in Indonesia in October. The FAA reiterated Tuesday that the aircraft is safe. “Our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft,” the agency said. US carriers, sticking by the FAA guidance, have said they have no plans to ground flights.

The UK, France, Germany and Ireland all grounded the aircraft within about an hour of each other Tuesday. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, the FAA’s counterpart in Europe, later extended those bans to all of the EU. India grounded the MAX late Tuesday local time, and Canada said it was reviewing the situation and could ground the planes, too.

“I can’t think of a situation where places like China and Australia and some airlines have acted unilaterally,” said Paul Hayes, air-safety director at consulting firm Ascend.

European regulators, in particular, have long worked closely with US counterparts, making their divergence from the FAA recommendations particularly notable.

The moves come amid a flood of social-media queries from passengers and a number of groups representing cockpit and cabin crew from around the world expressing worry over the jet’s safety.

The global groundings resulted in the bulk of the global MAX fleet, which totals more than 370, to be idled Tuesday and caused some disruption to air travel around the world. Two Turkish Airlines flights headed to the UK turned around midflight after Britain’s regulator barred the jet from its airspace.

Olly Hatfield, a 47-year-old commodities analyst, thought he would be fine for his Turkish Airlines flight from London Gatwick to Istanbul. He checked ahead of time and thought he was booked on a different variety of the 737.

“I was sensitive to it,” he said. It turns out, he was wrong, and he was slated to fly on a MAX, after all. After the UK grounding, Turkish Air rebooked him on a later flight, from Heathrow, a 90-minute car ride from Gatwick. Mr. Hatfield said he would continue trying to avoid the aircraft “until all the reputable aviation authorities had given the all clear.”

Boeing repeated Tuesday that it has full confidence in the plane’s safety, but added that “we understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets.”

The company said it would continue to provide information to governments and carriers to help them return the planes to service. (WSJ)

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