Boeing’s top-selling plane is set for new scrutiny after second deadly crash in 5 months


Boeing‘s fastest-ever selling aircraft is back in the spotlight after an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX jet went down Sunday, killing everyone on board. It is the second deadly crash for the plane in less than five months.

An interim report from Indonesian investigators released in November found that the jet had several days of maintenance problems and that the pilots had battled an anti-stall system on the plane, which may have been receiving erroneous readings. The cause of the crash is still unknown.

The Boeing 737 MAX is flown by Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines and is also in the fleets of Icelandair, Xiamen Airlines and Fiji Airways.

“Our heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the passengers and employees on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302,” Southwest said in a statement. The Dallas-based airline operates 31 Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets. The company said it is in contact with Boeing and will continue to be so over the course of the investigation. “We remain confident in the safety and airworthiness of our fleet of more than 750 Boeing aircraft.”

Boeing said it has a team ready to assist in the investigation with Ethiopian and U.S. safety officials following Sunday’s crash.

The crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in October drew scrutiny of the new maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, known as MCAS, which officials said they believed pushed the nose of the plane down repeatedly. A nose-down position is the way to recover from a stall but can be catastrophic if the plane signals it is in a stall when it is not. Boeing issued a safety bulletin to pilots in November directing them how to handle if the nose of the plane is automatically pushed down.

Dennis Tajer, a Boeing 737 pilot and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s pilots, said the airline’s pilots met with Boeing staff following the Lion Air crash and that the pilots had not been informed of the new system before the Lion Air crash. Tajer said Boeing’s response answered questions about the new system.

“We got the information we needed,” Tajer said about the update from Boeing. “We don’t fly airplanes we don’t feel safe on.”

American is confident both in the Boeing 737 MAX 8, of which it operates 24, and the crew that flies them, said spokesman Ross Feinstein.

American’s Boeing 737 MAX planes have a special display that shows pilots when the angle of attack of the plane is in disagreement with readings from sensors on the aircraft, Feinstein said.

Southwest recently added angle-of-attack displays to primary flight displays on these aircraft “as an additional control,” following the crash of Lion Air 610, according to spokesman Chris Mainz.

United also said it was confident in the Boeing 737 MAX planes. “We have made clear that the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft is safe and that our pilots are properly trained to fly the MAX aircraft safely,” said spokeswoman Rachel Rivas.

“We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board and stand ready to support the Ethiopian Airlines team,” Boeing said in a statement.

The manufacturer said it is is sending a team to the crash site in Ethiopia to assist the country’s accident investigation bureau as well as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB said it is sending a four-person team to the crash site and the Federal Aviation Administration said its staff also plans to assist in the investigation.

Boeing declined to comment beyond its statement.

If any fixes are needed for the plane, “it’s something they’re going to have to get on top of instantly because it does echo what happened with Lion Air,” said Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at aircraft analysis firm Teal Group.

He added, however, that the investigation of the Ethiopian crash is too recent to draw conclusions.

CNBC’s Fred Imbert contributed to this report.

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