Pressure builds on U.S. to ground Boeing 737 MAX jets after Ethiopia crash

The United States stood increasingly isolated Tuesday over its refusal to ground Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, after a second deadly crash in less than five months prompted governments worldwide to ban the aircraft.
Despite the aviation giant's assurances that the plane is safe and reliable, the European Union, Britain and India joined China and other countries that either grounded the best-selling workhorse plane or banned it from their airspace as they await the investigation into the crash.
The developments sent Boeing shares tumbling another 6 percent in Tuesday, after a 5 percent drop Monday, wiping billions off its market value.
A new Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 went down minutes into a flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi on Sunday, killing all 157 people on board. That followed the October crash of a new Lion Air jet of the same model in Indonesia, which killed 189 people shortly after takeoff from Jakarta.
The widening actions against the aircraft puts pressure on Boeing, the world's biggest plane manufacturer, to prove the MAX planes are safe.
The company said it is rolling out flight software updates by April that could address issues with a faulty sensor, but US authorities so far have not prohibited the planes from flying.
But there are increasing calls from U.S. legislators to do so, including from one who heads a Senate subcommittee on aviation.
The full extent of the impact on international travel routes was unclear, although there are about 350 MAX 8 planes currently in service around the world.
Air Canada, for example, announced it was cancelling flights to London following Britain's decision to ban the aircraft. The EU aviation safety agency also closed European airspace to all MAX planes.
It noted that the "exact causes" of the Lion Air crash were still being investigated. And "at this early stage of the related investigation, it cannot be excluded that similar causes may have contributed to both events."
India on Tuesday joined the list of countries to ban the jet, a day after saying it had imposed additional interim safety requirements for ground engineers and crew for the aircraft.
Elsewhere, Turkish Airlines, one of the largest carriers in the world, said it was suspending use of its 12 MAX aircraft from Wednesday, until "uncertainty" was clarified.
Low-cost airline Norwegian Air Shuttle, South Korea's Eastar Jet and South Africa's Comair also said they would halt flights.
On Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in with a blistering tweet: "Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly."
"Pilot are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT," he wrote, referring to the prestigious university.
Trump later spoke by telephone to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who assured him the aircraft is safe, an industry source told AFP.
U.S. carriers and regulators have so far appeared to maintain confidence in Boeing.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has not grounded the MAX but ordered the manufacturer to make changes to flight systems and pilot training procedures.
The move was not enough to reassure the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which said it was banning the planes from UK airspace "as a precautionary measure."
Global air travel hub Singapore, as well as Australia, Malaysia and Oman, were among the other countries to ban all MAX planes from their airspace.
China, a hugely important market for Boeing, on Monday ordered domestic airlines to suspend operations of the plane.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz joined others calling for U.S. airlines to ground the aircraft "until the FAA confirms the safety of these aircraft and their passengers.
"Further investigation may reveal that mechanical issues were not the cause, but until that time, our first priority must be the safety of the flying public," Cruz said in a statement.
Boeing has described the MAX series as its fastest-selling family of planes, with more than 5,000 orders placed to date from about 100 customers.
But not since the 1970s -- when the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 suffered successive fatal incidents -- has a new model been involved in two deadly accidents in such a short period.
Thomas Anthony, head of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California, said increasing automation of planes means crews have less experience flying manually.
"So it's not just a mechanical, it is not just a software problem, but it is a problem of communication and trust," he told AFP.
The plane involved in Sunday's crash was less than four months old, with Ethiopian Airlines saying it was delivered on November 15.
It went down near the village of Tulu Fara, some 40 miles (60 kilometers) east of Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam said the plane had flown in from Johannesburg on Sunday, spent three hours in Addis and was "dispatched with no remark," meaning no problems were flagged.
Investigators have recovered the black box flight recorders, which could potentially provide information about what happened, depending on their condition.

© 2019 AFP
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