The US air regulator said on Monday the Boeing 737 Max 8 was airworthy but, as more airlines and aviation authorities grounded their planes, said it would mandate design changes to the aircraft from Boeing by April.
The new model of aircraft has been involved in two fatal crashes since October, and airlines using the short-haul passenger jet have been inundated with questions from concerned passengers since Sunday, when an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 crashed and all 157 people onboard died.
Meanwhile, temporary bans on the use of Max 8 jets spread around the world. Singapore’s civil aviation authority barred their use, affecting SilkAir, an arm of Singapore Airlines that has six of the aircraft, as well as China Southern Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Shandong Airlines and Thai Lion Air. One of Brazil’s biggest airlines, GOL, grounded its seven aircraft and Aeroméxico suspended the use of its six planes.
The bans echo earlier moves by 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”.
Late on Monday, Boeing confirmed the announcement by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and would deploy a software upgrade across the fleet “in the coming weeks”. The company confirmed it had for several months “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 the company’s condolences to the relatives of those killed in the disaster.
In the FAA’s notice, it said it planned to require design changes by Boeing no later than April. Boeing is working to complete “flight control system enhancements, which provide reduced reliance on procedures associated with required pilot memory items”, the FAA said.
The FAA also said Boeing “plans to update training requirements and flight crew manuals to go with the design change” to an automated protection system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS. The changes also include MCAS activation and angle of attack signal enhancements.
The FAA said external reports were drawing similarities between the crash in Ethiopia and the earlier fatal crash off the coast of Indonesia that killed all 189 onboard.
Like the previous accident, which involved a Lion Air flight that crashed 13 minutes after takeoff, 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 US manufacturer’s top-selling 737 Max aircraft.
Alarm over the safety of the Boeing 737 Max 8 is leading to passengers demanding the right to know which type of aircraft they will be taking – and the right to cancel based on that.
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 FAA said it was “monitoring developments” and would help Ethiopian authorities investigate the crash.
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority said just 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.
Norwegian said it would continue to operate its 18 737 Max 8 planes as normal.
Icelandair, which operates three Boeing 737 Max aircraft said it was “not taking any action following recent events, but we will, however, follow any developments closely”.
For passengers who do not want to fly on a 737 Max, the simplest solution is to avoid airlines that fly it.
Typically, airlines indicate the aircraft type in use in any particular market, or on any particular flight and some, like Delta, use the type of plane – say a “flagship” Airbus A350 – as marketing tools to attract travellers. Websites such as seatguru.com show the configuration of planes, but airlines do not offer passengers any ability to route travel according to the plane being used.
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.