Major European governments on Tuesday joined Australia, Turkey, China and a number of smaller countries in deciding to suspend flights using the Boeing 737 Max 8 jet, citing a need to determine why two new planes in the past five months suddenly crashed shortly after takeoff. The United States is rapidly becoming the outlier in opting to keep the planes flying rather than ground them. Considering what's at stake, an abundance of caution is the smarter approach.
U.S. senators from both parties have joined the call for grounding the 737 Max until there's greater clarity behind Sunday's crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane, killing all 157 aboard. The largest U.S. flight attendants union expressed growing concern. So far, investigators have yet to establish a direct link between Sunday's crash and one involving Lion Air of Indonesia on Oct. 29, but both planes were brand-new and plummeted in ways that new planes simply aren't supposed to behave.
Too many lives are at stake to justify keeping the 737 Max flying until there's more clarity on what caused the Ethiopian crash. The Federal Aviation Administration should halt flights using this equipment despite the disruption to travelers and impact on airline revenues such a move would entail.
As a newspaper in a Boeing town, we don't make this call lightly, especially considering that Southwest and American Airlines, the two largest passenger carriers serving St. Louis Lambert International Airport, rely increasingly on the 737 Max. Both airlines are keeping their planes flying.
Boeing says it has "full confidence" in the plane. Pilots and U.S. airlines maintain that the plane can be flown safely even though a serious problem has been identified in the software that directs the plane's guidance system. The software problem became publicly known after the Lion Air crash, when flight data and recordings of pilot communications with ground control indicated that automated controls were counteracting pilots' efforts to keep the plane flying. Inaccurate sensor information caused the plane's nose to repeatedly lurch downward no matter what pilots did to keep it level. All 189 aboard were killed.
It might take Boeing another two weeks to correct the software glitch linked to the Lion Air crash. In the meantime, it's effectively up to pilots to make the necessary in-flight corrections, should they encounter this problem.
Witnesses in Ethiopia described the plane in Sunday's crash as behaving erratically before it crashed. After the Lion Air tragedy, Boeing distributed instructions to pilots around the world on ways to respond if the problem occurred. Ethiopian Airlines, which has a strong reputation in the industry, said its pilots, including those on Sunday's flight, had received extra training after the Indonesia crash.
The Ethiopian pilots felt confident enough to keep flying. That's exactly what should give Boeing and the FAA cause for concern.
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