Australia and Singapore suspend Boeing 737 Max operations after crash

By Edward Helmore in New York, Gwyn Topham, and agencies

Australia and Singapore have suspended operations of all Boeing 737 Max aircraft in and out of their airports, after Indonesia and China grounded their fleets of the US plane manufacturer’s latest model, which suffered a second fatal crash in less than five months on Sunday.

The scare has wiped billions of dollars off the market value of the world’s biggest plane-maker, as the Boeing shares closed 5% down on Monday having fallen by as much as 13.5% at one point. Nearly 40% of the in-service fleet of 371 Boeing 737 Max jets globally have been grounded, according to industry publication Flightglobal, including 97 jets in the biggest market, China.

A day after an Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet plunged to the ground, killing all 157 people onboard, the US stressed it was safe to fly the planes.

But in statements on Tuesday, the civil aviation authorities in Australia and Singapore said they were issuing temporary suspensions of all 737 Max planes while they waited for more information on the Ethiopia crash.

The Singapore suspension affects SilkAir, an arm of Singapore Airlines, as well as China Southern Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Shandong Airlines and Thai Lion Air. Australia’s move affects only Singapore Airlines Ltd’s Silk Air and Fiji Airways, as no Australian carriers use the model.

Map

Several airlines and regulators have grounded the Max 8 model, but Australia and Singapore are understood to be the first countries to ban planes from across Boeing’s Max fleet.

Malaysia became the latest to suspend the use of the Max 8 to fly to, from or through its territory on Tuesday. Oman said it would suspend the use of all Boeing 737 Maxes.

Airlines using the short-haul passenger jet – the same model involved in the Lion Air crash off Indonesia that killed 189 people in October – have been inundated with questions from concerned passengers since Sunday. There has been no information yet to link the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines incidents.

The US air regulator the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Monday the Boeing 737 Max 8 was airworthy but that it has demanded design changes to the aircraft by April.

The FAA noted that external reports were drawing similarities between the crashes in Ethiopia and off Indonesia.

Boeing said it was aware of the the statement and that it would deploy a software upgrade across the fleet “in the coming weeks”. The company said that for several months it “been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 Max, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer”. It did not refer to Sunday’s crash in connection to the software upgrade but did express its condolences to the relatives of those killed in the disaster.

Southwest Airlines, a major US airline, said it continued to have confidence in the 737 Max 8.

Orders
Deliveries

One of Brazil’s biggest airlines, GOL, grounded its seven aircraft and Aeroméxico suspended the use of its six planes late on Monday, echoing moves by airlines in China and Indonesia as well as Cayman Airways and African carrier Comair. Argentina’s Association of Airline Pilots too has ordered its members not to fly the Max series. GOL said it had confidence in Boeing and that its Max 8 aircraft had made 2,933 flights, totalling more than 12,700 hours, “in total safety and efficiency”.

As in the case of the Indonesia crash, the Ethiopian Airlines pilots had reported problems with the plane and requested permission to make an emergency landing before losing contact with ground control.

The US transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, said regulators would not hesitate to act if they found a safety issue. Boeing’s top executive told employees on Monday he was confident in the safety of the 737 Max, its top-selling aircraft.

Alarm over the safety of plane has lead passengers to demand to know which type of aircraft they will be taking – and the right to cancel based on that.

According to John Cox, the founder and chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, if an airline makes an unscheduled change to the aircraft, then passengers have the right to fee-free change or refund.

“It’s not 100% clear, but if you were at the airport and there were other flights not on a Max, a customer is likely to be accommodated asking to switch to another flight even though it’s not clearly provided for in published rules,” Cox said.

Industry analysts said some disruption was inevitable from airlines grounding their 737 Max 8s, even though most of those who have done so have a small number of the planes in operation, compared to their overall fleet size.

“No airline has lots of spare aircraft, so grounding any planes is inevitably going to have an impact.” said Andrew Charlton, of Aviation Advocacy. “But you still have crew so you can work their existing planes harder. It depends on the numbers and duration.”

Aeromexico, which has six 737 Maxs out of 70 planes in its fleet, has said the normal flight schedule would be covered by its other models. Singaporean Silk Air has said there would be some disruption after Singapore, Indonesia and Australia banned the Boeing model from flying. Five of the airline’s 32 planes are the new 737 Max 8s, with 27 more on order to replace virtually its entire fleet by 2022.

According to Chinese media, despite its airlines having made a significant early investment in a number of planes operating across its the temporary grounding is not expected to cause much disruption to passengers, with enough capacity in the short term to substitute other planes.

Aviation consultant John Strickland said cancellations were likely, adding that while there could be more planes on standby in quieter midweek or off-season periods, an ongoing grounding would cause headaches for airlines awaiting deliveries of 737-Max planes from Boeing: “Ryanair for example is expecting 50 in the next few months.”

Western aviation safety bodies have so far declined to follow China’s lead and order operators such as American and United to ground the jet.

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority said five of the jets were operated in the UK, with a sixth due to enter service this week. The European air safety body EASA said it “will immediately publish any further information on our website as the necessary information is available”.

Some airlines using the 737 Max have also have made statements expressing their confidence in the plane’s airworthiness.

“At this time there are no facts on the cause of the accident other than news reports,” American Airlines said. “We have full confidence in the aircraft and our crew members, who are the best and most experienced in the industry.” The airline added it would continue to monitor the investigation into the crash.

Similarly, Southwest said it did not plan to change its operational policies or procedures. “We remain confident in the safety and airworthiness of our fleet of more than 750 Boeing aircraft,” the airline said.

Reuters contributed to this report