After days of resistance, the United States on Wednesday followed its counterparts around the world in grounding the Boeing 737 Max 8, the aircraft involved in a deadly crash in Ethiopia on Sunday and another several months ago in Indonesia.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said that airplane tracking data they viewed Wednesday and new evidence from the wreckage of the crash in Ethiopia showed similarities to the crash in Indonesia, leading the agency to ground both the 737 Max 8 and the Max 9, another aircraft in the series.
President Donald Trump announced the abrupt about-face Wednesday, after U.S. officials found themselves nearly alone in allowing the planes to remain in the air.
As recently as Wednesday morning, both Boeing and the FAA had continued to say it was safe for the planes to fly.
“Any plane currently in the air will go to its destination and thereafter be grounded until further notice,” Trump said at an afternoon news conference. “The safety of the American people, and all people, is our paramount concern.”
But there were growing questions about the slow response to the crisis and whether the nation’s top air-safety officials acted quickly enough to protect the flying public. Trump took the unusual step of consulting personally with Boeing’s chief executive earlier this week.
In the months leading up to the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, U.S. pilots had expressed exasperation about the aircraft’s systems, which they said limited their control of the planes, according to a confidential safety reporting system hosted by NASA.
Pilots complained of inadequate training on automation-assisted flying systems, unfamiliarity with the controls, anxiety that prompted them to engage autopilot earlier than normal, and at least two instances where the plane pitched downward or maneuvered against pilots’ inputs. Some of the pilot complaints were first reported by the Dallas Morning News.
The FAA denied that the pilots’ complaints were indicative of problems with the automation system that has been cited as a factor in the Indonesia crash, but some pilots specifically noted that system as a possible cause of flight-control problems in their reports to NASA.
Trump’s announcement came hours after one by Canada’s transportation minister grounding the jets. Canada had been the last major holdout besides the United States. China was the first major power to ground the planes.
The order will ground more than 70 aircraft. In the United States, the aircraft is used by American and Southwest airlines, which combined have 58 Max 8s in their fleets. United Airlines has 14 of the Max 9 planes.