We’re grounding the Boeing ... even though we don’t have to: Comair
Airline, facing backlash over decision to continue to operate its Boeing 737 MAX 8, has grounded its aircraft
Just hours after standing firm and stating categorically that its Boeing 737 MAX 8 would continue to fly in SA, Comair backtracked on Monday evening amid growing criticism.
The company said it was temporarily pulling the plane from its flight schedule – even though it said it had no reason to do so.
The about-turn followed public outcry after the same type of aircraft crashed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the weekend, killing all 157 people on board. In October, that same Boeing crashed in Indonesia, killing nearly 190 people.
The flights were operated by Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air respectively.
Before grounding the jet, Comair drew sharp criticism from leading SA aviation expert Guy Leitch, who told Times Select earlier on Monday the airline was putting “profit before safety” by continuing to operate its 737 Max.
It seems that this kind of pressure finally led to the latest decision.
In a statement on Monday night, Comair's airline division executive director, Wrenelle Stander, announced the new development. She said it was taken “despite neither regulatory authorities nor the manufacturer requiring it to do so”.
Stander said while Comair had done extensive preparatory work prior to the introduction of the first 737 MAX 8 into the fleet, and it remained confident in the inherent safety of the aircraft, it had decided temporarily not to schedule the aircraft while it consulted with other operators, Boeing and technical experts.
“The safety and confidence of our customers and crew is always our priority,” said Stander.
Leitch said he supported Comair’s decision.
“I have been very vocal about Comair’s earlier decision not to pull the aircraft. It is an excellent decision [to remove it from the schedule] because the real problem is that the airline does not know properly what caused the Ethiopian [Airlines] crash, with their being no final report on the cause of the Lion Air crash.
“People had legitimate concerns about whether the aircraft they wold be flying in was safe or not to fly in. This decision is about making people feel safe,” he said.
Comair operates British Airways and low-cost carrier kulula.com in SA. The first of eight of these Boeings was delivered in February for use in local operations.
Earlier, Leitch, also editor of SA Flyer magazine, said Comair should be erring on the side of caution.
“Judging from the two crashes involving the same aircraft type in past five months, it seems that there is a problem.
“There are striking similarities between the two. There is little to justify not grounding the aircraft, especially as the cause of the crash is unknown. It is prudent to stop flying the aircraft until it is known what caused both crashes.”
Before the evening’s announcement, another aviation expert, speaking on condition of anonymity because of his close working relationship with SA’s airline companies, said it was a difficult call to make.
He said Comair currently operated only one of the aircraft in SA.
“What will be required by Comair and the Civil Aviation Authority is for all the scientific facts to be looked at before a decision on whether to ground or not is made. But, with the groundswell of emotion which is developing globally, what would normally be a factual-based decision is now coming down to how one deals with people’s justifiable perceptions and emotions.
“Comair will be in a situation where they have to either take the public into their confidence and say: ‘Look, we have studied the Lionair crash and have taken the following lessons into account, adapted our training and our planes and crew are up to standard,’ or they will have to go for a quick win and ground their aircraft temporarily," he said.
The SA Civil Aviation Authority also said on Monday it was looking into what happened and waiting for the outcomes of the investigation into the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
The aviation expert said grounding an aircraft was not an easy thing to do, especially when it came to bringing them back online.
“If a crash investigation is not completed, how do you explain bringing it back online if you as the airline decide to do so?”
‘Most popular jet ever’
Within hours of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, China ordered domestic airlines to suspend commercial operations of their Boeing 737 MAX 8, citing the Ethiopian Airlines and Indonesian crashes.
It noted “similarities” between the two accidents, China’s Civil Aviation Administration said. Operation of the model will only resume after “confirming the relevant measures to effectively ensure flight safety”, the administration added.
When Comair took delivery of its first Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft last month, it described it as the “most popular jet aircraft” ever.
In its Monday evening statement in which it pulled the aircraft, Comair said the 737 MAX was one of the most common planes in operation.
“There [are] currently over 370 Boeing 737 MAXs in operation, with 47 airlines. The type operates approximately 1,500 flights a day and has accumulated over 250,000 flights in total with an excellent record of daily reliability,” the company said.
Boeing said on Monday the investigation into the Ethiopian Airlines crash was in its early stages and there was no need to issue new guidance to operators of its 737 MAX 8 aircraft based on the information it had so far.
“Safety is our number-one priority, and we are taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this accident, working closely with the investigating team and all regulatory authorities involved,” a Boeing spokesperson said.
Former US-based National Transportation Safety Board chairperson Mark Rosenker said the catastrophic crashes of two new planes soon after the 737 MAX 8 was introduced were “highly unusual”, and both had broad similarities in that they went down soon after take-off.
While it was unclear whether there was a direct link, “this is now an extraordinary issue” for aviation safety officials to grapple with and would prompt a sweeping investigation to determine if there were common issues.
Teal Group expert Richard Aboulafia said it was “too soon to make any kind of meaningful comment”, while another expert stressed the similarities between the two incidents.
“It’s the same plane. Like Lion Air, the [Ethiopian Airlines] accident took place shortly after take-off and the pilots signalled they were experiencing problems, then the plane crashed. The similarities are clear,” the aerospace expert said, requesting anonymity to speak freely on the matter.
But Michel Merluzeau, director of Aerospace & Defense Market Analysis, noted that “these are the only similarities, and the comparison stops there, as we do not have any other reliable information at this juncture”. In both cases, the air carriers had solid reputations.
Following the Lion Air crash, Boeing faced criticism from some US pilot unions for not having detailed in its flight manual a change in the way that software on the MAX reacted in a stall compared with a previous version.
Boeing has insisted cockpit procedures were already in place to deal with problems the Lion Air jet experienced.
A preliminary report into the Lion Air crash focused on airline maintenance and training, as well as the technical response of the anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor, but did not give a reason for the crash. Since then, the cockpit voice recorder has been recovered and a final report is due later in 2019.
Eyewitnesses said the plane was on fire before it crashed.
“The plane was already on fire when it crashed to the ground. The crash caused a big explosion,” said witness Tegegn Dechasa at the site, which was littered with passenger belongings, human remains and airplane parts.
“The plane was in flames in its rear side shortly before the crash. The plane was swerving erratically before the crash.”
Farmer Sisay Gemechu said: “The plane seemed to be aiming to land at a nearby level open field, but crashed before reaching there.”
Ethiopian Airlines said the pilot had been given clearance to turn around after flagging difficulties to airport authorities.
Among the dead were tourists, business travellers and UN staff, including some who worked for the World Food Programme, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration. For one family member in Nairobi, there was a happy ending.
Khalid Ali Abdulrahman was waiting for his son who works in Dubai and feared the worst when a security official told him the plane had crashed.
“I was shocked, but shortly after my son contacted me and told me he is still in Addis and did not board that flight.”
Boeing shares down, rival Airbus shares up
Shares of Boeing slid 9% in early trading on Monday as many airlines grounded the plane maker’s bestselling 737 MAX 8 passenger jet following the second deadly crash involving the plane.
The share move, if maintained through normal trading hours, would be the biggest fall in Boeing’s stock in nearly two decades, halting a surge that has seen it triple in value in just more than three years to a record high of $446 last week.
The 737 MAX 8 uses LEAP-1B engines made by CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric and Safran SA. Shares in Safran also fell 1.6% on Monday.
Shares of rival Airbus SE were up 0.5%.