Donald Trump grounded Boeing’s 737 Max fleet on Wednesday, days after the second fatal crash involving the plane in five months.
Issuing an emergency order, Trump said all 737 Max jets in the US would now be grounded. “Planes that are in the air will be grounded if they are the 737 Max. Will be grounded upon landing at their destination,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
Trump said the safety of the American people and others was of “paramount concern”. “They [Boeing] have to find the problem … and they will find it,” he said.
In a statement Boeing said it had “full confidence in the safety of the 737 Max” but “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public” it had decided to temporarily suspend the entire fleet.
The United States had stood virtually alone in allowing the plane to keep flying. On Wednesday, Canada joined a growing list of nations that had grounded the aircraft involved in the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 people this week.
Boeing and US aviation safety officials at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had resisted mounting pressure from Congress and labor unions to halt operation of the Boeing 737 Max while investigators work to find the cause of the crash. Regulators in the European Union, the United Kingdom, China, Australia and India have restricted the planes from flying. The latest bans came from Egypt, Thailand and Vietnam on Wednesday.
The Ethiopian crash comes just five months after the deadly crash of a new Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Lion Air in Indonesia, which left 189 people dead. No evidence has yet linked the crashes, but pilots on both planes reported problems moments after takeoff and asked to make emergency landings.
Canada’s transportation minister Marc Garneau said the decision to issue a “safety notice” was based on a review of newly available satellite tracking data, which identified similarities between the crash in Ethiopia and the one last year in Indonesia.
Garneau cautioned that the information is “not conclusive” but that “at this point we feel that threshold has been crossed”.
On Tuesday, Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg reportedly spoke with Trump by phone to assure him the planes were safe. The call came after the president complained on Twitter that airplanes have become “far too complex to fly” and suggested that “pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT.”
But Trump and Boeing had faced mounting pressure to act. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who leads a Senate subcommittee overseeing aviation, called on the FAA to ground the planes and promised to hold hearings on the cause of the crash.
“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,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.
In a letter to Elwell, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, urged the regulatory authority to ground planes until an investigation into the cause of crash is complete.
“Continuing to fly an airplane that has been involved in two fatal crashes within just six months presents an unnecessary, potentially life-threatening risk to the traveling public,” Feinstein writes.
In a statement, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, said lawmakers should hold hearings “on whether an administration that famously refused to stand up to Saudi Arabia to protect Boeing arms sales has once again put lives at risk for the same reason”.
Passengers had bombarded US airlines with their concerns ahead of Trump’s move. Speaking at New York’s LaGuardia airport shortly ahead of the decision, Meredith Wagonner, visiting from Alabama, said she would ask to be put on another plane if she found she was due to travel on a Max 8. “I don’t know if they’ve been irresponsible not to ground it, I don’t know a lot about planes. But I can tell you, I wouldn’t go on it,” she said.
Boeing, one of the US’s largest manufactures, is a lobbying powerhouse with deep ties to the White House and Congress. According to OpenSecrets.org, a group that tracks lobbying data, Boeing spent more than $15m on Washington lobbying last year.
Trump’s acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, worked at the company for more than 30 years. On Wednesday, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General alleging that Shanahan violated ethics rules “by promoting Boeing in the scope of his official duties” at the DOD.
The two US airline carriers that fly the plane – Southwest Airlines and American Airlines – had both expressed confidence in the aircraft. Southwest, which has 34 737 MAX 8s in its fleet, said on Tuesday that the planes are “operating as planned today and we plan to operate those aircraft going forward”.
American, which operates 24 of the planes, said on Twitter in response to a passenger concern that the airline is “confident in the safe operation of all of our aircraft, including the 737 MAX 8, which contributes to our exemplary safety record”.