Updated 5:40 p.m. | The Federal Aviation Administration ordered all Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 airliners grounded on Wednesday after enhanced satellite data showed similarities between Sunday’s crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight and an October crash of a Lion Air jet in Indonesia.
President Donald Trump announced the decision, which came after the European Union, Great Britain, China and some airlines had already grounded the planes and members of Congress were calling on the FAA to follow suit.
Trump said he had spoken with Boeing executives and they agreed with the decision, adding he hoped they would come up with a plan to address the planes’ issues quickly.
“They don’t know the problem yet,” he said. “They’ve got to find it. … I didn’t want to take any chances.”
Daniel K. Elwell, the FAA acting administrator, told reporters in a conference call later that evidence gathered at the crash scene and an enhancement of satellite tracking of the Ethiopian flight led him to order the grounding.
Initial satellite data was unreliable, he said, but the company that took it worked with Boeing to enhance it.
“In the refinement of the track, it became clear to all parties that the track of the Ethiopian Airlines fight was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight,” Elwell said.
He said he would not discuss the evidence found on the ground, except that it “made it even more likely that the flight path was very close to Lion Air’s.”
The grounding is temporary, but Elwell would not say how long it would last. The “black boxes” that recorded flight data and cockpit voices were damaged and were to be flown Wednesday night to France, where they could be examined with more advanced equipment.
Democrats who control the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said they would be investigating not only the administration’s handling of the crash, but its decision to let the planes into the air to begin with.
“Despite repeated assurances from the FAA in recent days, it has become abundantly clear to us that not only should the 737 MAX be grounded, but also that there must be a rigorous investigation into why the aircraft, which has critical safety systems that did not exist on prior models, was certified without requiring additional pilot training,” Democratic Reps. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon and Rick Larsen of Washington said in a news release.
Speaking to reporters, Elwell defended his decision to wait to order the planes grounded.
“We would not take action until we had data to support taking that action,” Elwell said. “That data coalesced today and we made the call.”
He said he kept Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and the White House advised throughout the process.
The FAA’s order prohibits commercial flights of the 737-8 and 737-9 in the United States, though Elwell said Boeing could fly the planes to test them, and “ferry” flights would be allowed to return the planes to airports where they are maintained.
Trump said he “didn’t have to make this decision today,” but concluded, “it’s the right thing to do.” He also spoke to American Airlines and other air carriers, and all parties agreed it was the “right” call.
He called the grounding a “very tough decision” because the Chicago-based company has a “great” track record.
“We very much worked in conjunction with Canada” on the grounding decision, Trump said. The Canadian government also announced Wednesday it would order the grounding of the Boeing planes.
The grounding is effective “immediately,” he said. The jets will be grounded “until further notice” because “the safety of the American people, of all people, is our paramount concern.”
In a statement posted on Twitter, Boeing said it agreed with the decision “out of an abundance of caution and to reassure the flying public” even though it still has “full confidence” in the safety of the jets.
Members of Congress, including Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, had urged the Federal Aviation Administration this week to ground the planes.
“The continued use of these aircraft in the United States is especially troubling given the numerous regulators and air carriers around the world that have already moved to ground the 737 Max 8,” four House members led by California Reps. Mike Thompson and Doris Matsui said in a letter Tuesday.
“These include regulators in the European Union, Britain, Germany, China, Australia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Singapore, Malaysia and Oman, and air carriers in Latin America, South Korea and Turkey,” they wrote.
On Monday, Chao said the department had sent investigators to Ethiopia and would act if it had information about a threat to the public.
She then flew in one of the planes Tuesday, returning from a conference in Texas.
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