The airplane model is the same. Some key circumstances are remarkably similar. And the outcome was equally tragic.
It’s no wonder, then, that a number of questions are being raised about the safety of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 aircraft, the plane involved in Sunday’s crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which nosedived to the ground outside the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 on board.
The accident drew immediate parallels to the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air plane that plunged from the skies above Indonesia and into the Java Sea, killing all 189 passengers and crew members.
A new MAX 8, an upgraded, more fuel-efficient aircraft from Boeing’s popular 737 line, was also involved in that calamity. In both instances, the pilots tried to return to the airport a few minutes after takeoff but were not able to make it back. And both flights experienced drastic speed fluctuations during ascent.
But experts warn that doesn’t mean the reasons they plummeted were the same.
“As far comparing it to the Lion crash, that’s very tempting because the profile looks very similar, but that could be totally wrong. We’re really early in all of this,’’ said Robert Ditchey, a former Navy pilot and airline executive who’s now an aviation consultant.
“This is a punch in the nose for Boeing, but you can’t blame Boeing yet. You don’t know what happened. It may have nothing to do with the airplane itself. It may be a pure coincidence.’’
The cause of the Lion Air disaster is still being examined 4½ months later, but investigators are looking into whether an incorrect reading from a sensor activated an automatic command to lower the plane’s nose. The pilots tried unsuccessfully to reverse the command.
Boeing did not take the costly step of retraining pilots on that new feature of the flight control system when it introduced the MAX 8 in 2017, based on the argument that the new models flew essentially the same way as the familiar 737s. Pilots complained that neither the company, the airlines or the Federal Aviation Administration informed them of the change.
After the crash, Boeing sent out an advisory telling pilots how to override the software upgrade that created the problem.
On Sunday, the Chicago-based company said in statement it would contribute to the investigation in Addis Ababa.
“A Boeing technical team will be travelling to the crash site to provide technical assistance under the direction of the Ethiopia Accident Investigation Bureau and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board,’’ the statement said.
In noting the likelihood the crashes had different causes, Ditchey pointed out there were reports of maintenance issues with the Lion Air plane before the fated Flight 610, but no such problems with the plane operated by Ethiopian Airlines, regarded as a reputable outfit with up-to-date equipment.
Plus, he found it inconceivable the same mistakes would be repeated after such a high-profile catastrophe.
“When an accident like this happens, every pilot who’s going to fly that model airplane or anything similar to it is extremely sensitive and keen to know what happened so it never happens again,’’ he said.
Though this latest air disaster took place thousands of miles away from the U.S., its reverberations may be felt in the American aviation industry, and not only because it involves a domestic company in Boeing.
American and Southwest, two of the three largest U.S. airlines based on passengers carried, operate MAX 8 planes, though in relatively small numbers. American has 24 among its fleet of 1,000 mainline aircraft. Southwest’s fleet of 750-plus planes included 31 MAX 8’s as of Dec. 31.
Both airlines issued statements extending condolences to those affected by the tragedy in Ethiopia – there were eight Americans among the fatalities – and offering assurances their equipment is safe.
“We have been in contact with Boeing and will continue to stay close to the investigation as it progresses,’’ the Southwest statement said. “We remain confident in the safety and airworthiness of our fleet of more than 750 Boeing aircraft.’’
China’s civilian aviation authority took a different approach, ordering all Chinese airlines to ground MAX 8 airplanes in the aftermath of the Ethiopia crash.
But Thomas Anthony, director of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California, questioned whether the FAA has the resources and political clout to properly regulate industry giant Boeing, which is locked in a fierce battle for supremacy with European aircraft manufacturer Airbus.
Anthony said the FAA’s hiring practices and salary structure put it at a disadvantage when trying to hire top engineering talent, competing among others with well-heeled Boeing itself.
In addition, the industry’s safety success – there hasn’t been a fatal crash of a major U.S.-registered airline in more than 10 years – has reduced the desire for tight regulation, despite technological innovations that call for supervision.
“Boeing’s safety record is excellent, but every time you bring out a new airplane there are issues,’’ Anthony said. “Any new change can bring with it hazards, and do we have the resources at the FAA to be able to do this?’’
Industry observers believe it’s unlikely the FAA would ground the MAX 8’s unless it finds compelling evidence that its manufacture and/or design contributed to the accidents.
Bill Waldock, a professor of aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, said he has flown 737s for decades and would not be concerned about jumping on a MAX 8 now.
“There are differences in what happened with them (the two crashes),’’ Waldock said. “The bottom line is you have to let the investigation process get far enough into it to where they can tell if there’s a real issue or not.’’
In the meantime, the men and women in the cockpit might take extra steps to make sure they understand how the MAX 8s function before taking off.
“I think everybody will continue to fly the airplanes, but on the edge of their seats, under added scrutiny,’’ Ditchey said. “Every pilot who’s flying this airplane is talking about it.’’