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China has been building its aviation prowess for decades. Could the Max crisis help its ascent?

Reuters/Aly Song
"Sacred mission."
  • Tripti Lahiri
By Tripti Lahiri

Asia bureau chief

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Less than 24 hours after a second Boeing 737 Max crashed out of the sky in March, China made a sudden move.

The Civil Aviation Authority of China, the country’s airline regulator, announced that because of its “zero tolerance for safety hazards,” the nearly 100 Boeing 737 Max planes in operation in the country had to stop flying passengers by the evening. It was a notable departure from typical protocol: Not only does a home-country regulator of an aircraft manufacturer normally make the decision about whether to ground its own aircraft, the US Federal Aviation Administration’s judgment tends to be viewed as the gold standard for regulators worldwide. China was effectively saying: We don’t believe the FAA when they say it’s safe. Regardless, its move was quickly followed by groundings across Asia and Europe. Three days later, the US finally followed the rest of the world and grounded the plane.

China’s move was unexpected enough that some industry watchers wondered if politics could be a factor. Yet two tragedies involving a brand-new airplane in five months are also pretty unprecedented in modern flying. In March of 2019, Ethiopian Airlines ET302 crashed a few minutes after taking off, just as a Lion Air flight in Indonesia had done the previous October. In total, the two accidents killed nearly 350 people. The second crash, like the first, has been linked to a new automated system Boeing quietly put on the plane—a system that pilots were not initially told of or trained for—as the US aerospace giant raced to produce an alternative to Airbus’s A320neo. The planes appear set to remain grounded as Boeing works with the FAA on a software fix to make the planes safer.

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