Ethiopian Airlines crash is second disaster involving Boeing 737 MAX 8 in months

For the second time in less than six months, a brand-new Boeing aircraft has crashed just minutes into a flight.

All 157 people on board the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa that crashed on Sunday morning have died, the airline has confirmed.

The tragedy follows the Lion Air flight that went down over the Java Sea in late October, killing all 189 people on board.

There is no suggestion yet as to what caused the latest disaster, and no evidence that the two incidents are linked in causality.

What is known, however, is that both flights took place on the Boeing 737 MAX 8 — a new model recently unveiled to great fanfare by the US aviation giant, that saw its first flight less than two years ago.

“It’s highly suspicious,” said Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and the former Inspector General of the U.S. Transportation Department. “Here we have a brand-new aircraft that’s gone down twice in a year. That rings alarm bells in the aviation industry, because that just doesn’t happen.”

Adding to concerns are some similarities between the two flights. Both were operated by well-known airlines with strong safety records — but the Lion Air flight went down 13 minutes after take off, while Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed just six minutes into its journey.

And while the Ethiopian Airlines did not see the wild fluctuations in altitude that the Lion Air flight saw, it did dip and then regain altitude before it crashed.

“The similarities with Lion Air are too great not to be concerned,” Schiavo said.

Data from flight recorders awaited

At the root of October’s Lion Air crash was a new safety system installed in the MAX 8 plane, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), that automatically pulls the plane’s nose down if data suggests it is at risk.

In that flight, the system was responding to faulty data that suggested the nose was tilted at a higher angle than it was, indicating the plane was at risk of stalling.

The pilots subsequently engaged in a futile tug-of-war with the plane’s automatic systems, trying to reverse a nosedive that should not be triggered so soon after takeoff. Boeing has argued that pilots should have identified the system was in operation, and turned it off.

“All pilots should have been trained on that function after Lion Air,” Schiavo added. “Boeing did something very unusual for any manufacturer — it sent out an emergency bulletin and told all airlines to make sure they trained the pilots in the shut-off procedure.”

“This is one of the things that should never be happening after takeoff,” Schiavo said.

It is too early for conclusions to be drawn as to whether the same issue occurred on the Ethiopian Airlines flight — but a clue could come sooner rather than later.

“We will not get a final determination for two or three years, but we will get information from the flight recorders — which I’m guessing will be fairly easy to retrieve — in a matter of weeks,” said CNN anchor Richard Quest, who specializes in aviation.

“At the moment, it seems a coincidence” that both disasters occurred on the same aircraft, Quest said. “But I’m guaranteeing to you that the authorities will be examining just how close a coincidence, and whether there are common circumstances between the two,” he said.

“Two brand new planes have crashed from two respected airlines,” Quest added. “Ethiopian is a very, very well-run airline. There is no safety issue on Ethiopian Airlines.”

Possible repercussions for Boeing

If investigators do uncover a similar cause of the two accidents, the repercussions for Boeing could be dramatic.

“The Lion Air flight was a big deal for Boeing, but they managed to overcome it,” Schiavo says. “They put out the emergency warning about training, and the industry went on. With the second one, I don’t think everybody’s going to forget.”

The MAX 8 could be grounded if a link is found — either by the company itself, or by governments, though the former is more likely to come first, Schiavo says. “The voluntary basis is always the better way to go — but it will be expensive for Boeing.”

Airlines with MAX 8 aircraft in their fleet — and those with outstanding MAX 8 orders — are likely to be watching developments closely in the coming days and weeks.

On Monday, China’s Civil Aviation Administration said in a statement that it would be grounding the country’s entire MAX 8 fleet due to the government’s “zero tolerance for safety hazards.”

China has one of the world’s largest fleets of Boeing 737 MAX 8, operating 97 of the planes, according to Chinese state-run media.

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