WASHINGTON/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The U.S. aviation regulator said on Tuesday it would not ground Boeing Co 737 MAX planes after a crash in Ethiopia that killed 157 people, bucking a trend of countries around the world that have suspended the aircraft’s operations.
U.S. and Ethiopian aviation safety officials discussed on Tuesday whether the flight data and cockpit voice recorders from Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, which crashed on Sunday on a flight to Nairobi, would go to Washington or London for download and analysis.
U.S. officials said the devices suffered some damage but they were confident of some initial results within 24 hours of the data being downloaded.
U.S. carriers are eager to see the results as a growing number of countries and carriers are grounding the planes. There were 371 of the 737 MAX family jets in operation before this week’s groundings and about two thirds of the fleet is now grounded, based on Reuters calculations.
It is not clear if a final decision on where the recorders would go for analysis has been made. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) declined to comment.
The FAA’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said its review had shown “no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft”.
U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg and got assurances the aircraft was safe and did not need to be grounded, two people briefed on the call said.
The European Union’s aviation safety regulator suspended all flights in the bloc by the 737 MAX and a U.S. senator who chairs a panel overseeing aviation suggested the United States take similar action following Sunday’s crash, the second since October involving that type of plane.
But Elwell said no foreign civil aviation authorities had provided data that would warrant action. If any safety issues were identified during an urgent review of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the FAA would “take immediate and appropriate action,” he said.
Britain, Germany and France joined a wave of suspensions of the aircraft following the crash, piling pressure on the United States to follow suit.
Boeing, the world’s biggest planemaker, which has seen billions of dollars wiped off its market value since the crash, said it understood the actions but retained “full confidence” in the 737 MAX and had safety as its priority.
The three U.S. airlines using the 737 MAX - Southwest Airlines Co, American Airlines Group Inc and United Airlines - stood by the aircraft, although many potential passengers took to social media to express concerns, asking if they could change flights or cancel.
The cause of Sunday’s crash, which followed another disaster with a 737 MAX five months ago in Indonesia that killed 189 people, remains unknown. On Monday, the FAA released details of a series of design changes and training requirements mandated from Boeing on the MAX fleet after the Indonesia crash.
There is no evidence the two crashes are linked. Plane experts say it is too early to speculate on the reason for the latest crash. Most are caused by a unique chain of human and technical factors.
In an unusual decision, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it was suspending all flights in the bloc by the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 jets.
It shied away, however, from the even rarer step of pulling the safety certification for the plane itself, focusing instead on the softer process of restricting its use by airlines. That leaves some leeway for the U.S. FAA to decide its own approach.
Flight ET 302 came down in a field soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa, creating a fireball in a crater. It may take weeks or months to identify all the victims, who include a prize-winning author, a football official and a team of humanitarian workers.
Boeing shares fell 6.1 percent on Tuesday, bringing losses to 11.15 percent since the crash, the steepest two-day loss for the stock since July 2009. The drop has lopped $26.65 billion (£20 billion) off Boeing’s market value.
Of the top 10 countries by air passenger travel, all but the United States and Japan have halted flights of the 737 MAX. China, Indonesia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, India and others have temporarily suspended the plane.
Canada has no plans to ground 737 MAX aircraft but is ready to act to suspend flights if new information emerges indicating there is a problem, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said. Argentina and other South American nations are evaluating closing their airspace to 737 MAX planes, Argentina’s state-run news agency, Telam, reported.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee on aviation and space, said it would be “prudent” for the United States “to temporarily ground 737 Max aircraft until the FAA confirms the safety of these aircraft and their passengers.”
Trump also fretted over modern aircraft design.
“Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT,” Trump tweeted, lamenting that product developers always sought to go an unnecessary step further when “old and simpler” was superior.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”
Trump did not refer to Boeing or recent accidents, but his comments echoed an automation debate that partially lies at the centre of an investigation into October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia. A focus there is the role of a software system designed to push the plane down, alongside airline training and repair standards.
Boeing says it plans to update the software in coming weeks.
Given problems of identification at the charred disaster site, Ethiopian Airlines said it would take at least five days to start handing remains to families.
The victims came from more than 30 nations, and included nearly two dozen U.N. staff.
“We are Muslim and have to bury our deceased immediately,” Noordin Mohamed, a 27-year-old Kenyan businessman whose brother and mother died, told Reuters.
“Losing a brother and mother in the same day and not having their bodies to bury is very painful,” he said in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where the plane had been due.
The new variant of the 737, the world’s most-sold modern passenger aircraft, is viewed as the likely workhorse for global airlines for decades and 4,661 more are on order.
Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Duncan Miriri in Addis Ababa; Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Mark Potter and Alistair Bell; Editing by Keith Weir, Grant McCool and Peter Cooney