Boeing’s nightmare worsens as groundings spread

CAPE TOWN — While there’s no established link between the Boeing 737 Max’s malfunctioning autopilot stall response which caused the Jakarta full flight fatalities last October, and this Sunday’s all-on-board deaths in Ethiopia, just the idea of the same fault being responsible has grounded the fleet globally – except for the EU and North America. Would you fly in a 737 Max tomorrow – or with an airline operating them? It’s a highly pertinent question because we’ve never previously bothered establishing what model plane we’re about to board. Until now. Which means the airlines have to adopt a no-risk policy or face a potentially crippling flight sales drop. The EU and North America are gambling on there being no black-box link while everyone else swallows the bitter zero-risk pill of cost and inconvenience. The thought of another cabin crew desperately trying to over-ride a malfunctioning autopilot system that puts the plane into a nose-dive milli-seconds after the artificial intelligence perceives a stall is horrific. Even aviation drama movies generally end in a last-second reprieve as the pilot heroically or miraculously overcomes the high-tech. In South Africa the only airline operating a 737 Max – Comair – has grounded it. Domestically, at least, we can breathe easy. – Chris Bateman

By Kyunghee Park and Angus Whitley

(Bloomberg) – Boeing Co. suffered more groundings of its most important airliner as operators from Brazil to South Korea idled the 737 Max following a second deadly crash, throwing the US manufacturer deeper into crisis.

After China became the first major market on Monday to halt take-offs and landings of Boeing’s latest single-aisle model, groundings quickly cascaded around the globe. Singapore barred all 737 Max flight in and out of the city-state, a move that was followed by Australia.

Elsewhere in Asia, a South Korean carrier suspended its 737 Max planes, while two airlines in Latin American also halted operations of the plane, which entered service just a few years ago and has become Boeing’s fastest-selling aircraft, with nearly 4,700 orders. Now, the suspensions have put about a third of the 350-strong global fleet out of action.

In a sign that the tragedy in Ethiopia, which killed everyone on board, threatens to become a commercial fiasco for Boeing, launch customer Lion Air is said to be considering a complete switch to Airbus SE planes, a person familiar with the discussions said, with the carrier suspending further 737 Max deliveries this year.

The fallout from the crash has weighed on Boeing’s stock. The shares slumped as much as 14 percent on Monday and were down a further 2.2% in early US trading on Tuesday, as investors weigh the backlash against an aircraft that brings in close to a third of total operating profit.

The zero-risk approach by airlines and aviation authorities in South America and Asia contrasts with assurance by US regulators that the aircraft remains airworthy. The crash has spooked airlines and passengers and eroded faith in the widely flown jetliner because the disaster in Ethiopia bore similarities to the first crash of a 737 Max just five months ago. In both cases, the aircraft crashed minutes after takeoff as the pilots failed to maintain control.

While the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders have been recovered from the crash site, little is know at this point about the final fateful moments of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, which was en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi in Kenya with 157 on board. Africa’s largest carrier took delivery of its first 737 Max at the end of June as part of an upgrade of its fleet, which also includes Boeing’s twin-aisle 787 Dreamliner and the larger 777 model.

The bans in Singapore and Australia mean that the newest version of Boeing’s best-selling model is now blocked from a key long-distance travel destination as well as Changi, Asia’s second-busiest international airport and a popular transit hub. Singapore’s aviation regulator will “gather more information and review the safety risk associated with the continued operation of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft into and out of Singapore,” according to a statement.

The US Federal Aviation Administration came out on Monday in support of the aircraft, saying the plane remains safe to fly, and that there isn’t conclusive evidence so far to link the loss of the Ethiopian 737 Max 8 on Sunday and the fatal Lion Air disaster. The plane maker echoed the FAA’s statement, saying it stood by the aircraft, a revamped version of its workhorse single-aisle jet. Airbus competes in this lucrative segment of the market with its family of A320neo models.

“Speculating about the cause of the accident or discussing it without all the necessary facts is not appropriate and could compromise the integrity of the investigation,” Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg said in a message to employees.

Boeing said late Monday that in the coming weeks it plans to roll out software improvements for the anti-stall function that contributed to the Indonesian disaster.

Lion Air said to mull pivot to Airbus after Boeing orders halted

China was the first aviation market to move on the 737 Max following the crash, with the regulator grounded all 96 of China’s 737 Max planes early Monday until their safety can be assured. But the moves by Singapore and Australia go a step further than those of China and Indonesia, where domestic Max 737 fleets were grounded but the planes not barred from the countries’ airspace.

Singapore’s suspension includes both the Max 8 and 9 variants and affects foreign carriers that deploy the aircraft for flights into the island-city. The 737 Max is the newest version of Boeing’s most important aircraft type, a narrow-body jet forms the backbone of many global airline fleets.

Airbus was first to introduce an upgraded variant of the A320 family with new engines that are more fuel efficient, and the model became a huge commercial hit for the Toulouse, France-based company, prompting Boeing to follow suit with a revamped 737.