China is the first country to ground the Boeing 737 Max after its two crashes

The first Boeing 737 Max 8 completed in China.
The first Boeing 737 Max 8 completed in China.
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China has become the first country to ground Boeing’s 737 Max 8 plane following the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 302 yesterday.

The crash on Sunday (March 10) killed all 157 on board, including eight Chinese nationals, and is the second one involving the model in less than six months. Last October, a Lion Air flight, also using the 737 Max 8, crashed 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board. A preliminary investigation has drawn attention to the role of a new anti-stall mechanism in the Max 8 and 9 aircraft.

“In view of the fact that the two air crashes involved newly delivered Boeing 737-8 aircraft, and they all occur in the take-off phase, they have certain similarities,” the China Civil Aviation Administration (link in Chinese) said. It cited “zero tolerance for safety hazards” and ordered domestic airlines to suspend the commercial operation of the Boeing 737-8 by 6pm local time on Monday.

Separately, a notice on a social media account of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), which oversees the government’s stakes in various industries, said that 96 737 Max 8s used by domestic carriers have been grounded. The notice named Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Lucky Air, Okay Airways, 9 Air, Fuzhou Airlines, and Kunming Airlines as the carriers affected. (The notice was later deleted, but Chinese media outlets carried screenshots of it.)

The news of the grounding was first reported by China’s Caijing financial news outlet (link in Chinese).

The aviation regulator said it would be in touch with the US Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing about when to resume operations for the aircraft. Boeing China said in a statement Monday it is “taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this accident, working closely with the investigating team and all regulatory authorities involved.” The company also said that at this time it has no new guidance to airline operators.

After China’s announcement, Ethiopian Airlines said it too would ground its remaining 737 Max aircraft—it had taken delivery of five through the end of January—while Cayman Airlines said it would ground its two. Indonesia also on Monday made the decision to ground its 11 Max 8 planes.

Following the Lion Air crash, the FAA issued an emergency directive to carriers to update flight manuals with information on what to do when the aircraft’s anti-stall system is triggered by erroneous data, which can cause the aircraft’s computer to point the nose sharply downward, while Boeing directed airlines to a checklist for stabilizing the aircraft. Pilots said the crash and the directives that followed were the first time that they were made aware of these changes to the flight system.

Indonesia’s preliminary investigation report on the Lion Air crash highlighted the battle that ensued between pilots and the anti-stall mechanism, which activated in response to erroneous data from an “angle-of-attack” sensor. The sensor gauges the angle between the aircraft’s nose and oncoming air.

Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines flight went off the radar six minutes after taking off for a roughly two-hour flight from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to Nairobi, Kenya. The company’s CEO said the pilot was very experienced, and had requested to turn back shortly after takeoff, but then disappeared from the radar. In the case of the crashed Lion Air flight, too, the pilot had requested to turn back before the crash.

China has been one of the biggest buyers of the 737 Max, which offers short-haul flights the possibility of carrying more passengers at a lesser cost because of the single-aisle aircraft’s greater fuel efficiency. Eleven airlines and the leasing arms of two major banks have ordered 268 737 Max planes, according to Boeing’s website, which doesn’t specify if the orders are for the Max 8 or subsequent models.

According to Boeing, the following airlines in China have taken delivery of the 737 Max as of January include:

  • China Southern Airlines (16 out of 50 ordered)
  • Air China (14 out of 14 ordered)
  • China Eastern Airlines (13 out of 13 ordered)
  • Xiamen Airlines (9 out of 9 ordered)
  • Okay Airways (9 out of 9 ordered)
  • Hainan Airlines (7 out of 7 ordered)
  • Shandong Airlines (6 out of 6 ordered)
  • Shenzhen Airlines (5 out of 5 ordered)
  • 9 Air (1 out of 1 ordered)

The 80 mentioned above account for over 20% of the 737 Max deliveries so far.

Some parties ordering the 737 Max aren’t identified by Boeing and in some cases Chinese airlines are leasing the Max from other entities. Aviation data firm Flightglobal reported that that China’s Lucky Air took delivery of a 737 Max 8 in November from GE subsidiary GECAS, while the Centre for Aviation reported that Kunming Airlines took delivery of one in October.

In addition, China Development Bank’s leasing arm has taken delivery of one out of the 78 of the 737 Max aircraft it has ordered, ICBC Leasing has taken delivery of five out of five ordered, while Kunming-based Ruili Airlines and Shenzhen-based Donghai Airlines have ordered 36 and 25 of the 737 Max, respectively, but have not taken delivery of any yet.

Airlines in the US, including Southwest, American, and United, account for nearly 19% of the deliveries of the 737 Max made by January. Indian airline companies have also ordered at least 260 units of the model but have only taken delivery of a little over half-a-dozen so far.

The grounding announcement comes less than three months after Boeing opened its first overseas plant in China, a completion center for the 737 Max in Zhoushan. The center delivered its first 737 Max to Air China on Dec. 15.

—Echo Huang contributed to this article