NAIROBI/OSLO. – Boeing Co should ground all of its 737 MAX 8 jets until it is established that they are safe to fly, the chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines told the BBC on Wednesday.
Tewolde Gebremariam spoke in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa following the crash of his airline’s 737 MAX 8 on Sunday, killing all 157 people onboard. That followed the October crash of a new Lion Air jet of the same model in Indonesia, which killed 189 people shortly after take-off from Jakarta.
This comes in the wake of the EU aviation safety agency closing European airspace to MAX planes.
Meanwhile, Norwegian Air said on Wednesday it will seek compensation from plane maker Boeing for costs and lost revenue after grounding its fleet of 737 MAX 8 aircraft. “We expect Boeing to take this bill,” Norwegian said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
The Oslo-based airline has 18 ‘MAX’ passenger jets in its 163-aircraft fleet. European regulators on Tuesday grounded the aircraft following Sunday’s crash, which was the second crash involving that type of plane since October.
Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg said on Monday that he was confident in the safety of the 737 MAX in an email to employees, which was seen by Reuters.
Industry sources, however, said the planemaker faces big claims after the crash. Norwegian has bet heavily on the ‘MAX’ to become its aircraft of choice for short- and medium-range flights in coming years as the low-cost carrier seeks to boost its fuel efficiency and cut the cost of flying.
Idle planes will add to pressures on the airline, which is making losses amid intense competition at a time when several smaller European competitors have gone out of business.
The carrier has raised 3 billion Norwegian crowns (US$348 million) from shareholders in recent months and said it would cut costs as it tries to regain profitability this year.
“If this situation gets solved within the next fortnight, this will not be very serious for Norwegian,” said analyst Preben Rasch-Olsen at brokerage Carnegie, adding that seasonally low demand in March likely leaves spare capacity.
“The little extra costs they are incurring, they can probably get that covered by Boeing,” Rasch-Olsen said.
“But if this situation continues into the Easter holidays, or May and June, then it is a problem. They (will) need to get in new planes. And then comes the costs.”
Europeans tend to book their summer holidays in May, so the grounding may not yet affect bookings for the peak season for the airline industry, the analyst said.
Norwegian cancelled some flights on Tuesday, and on Wednesday it cancelled at least three dozen departures, its website showed, most of which were due to fly from airports in Oslo, Stockholm and other Nordic cities.
The company said it aimed to minimise the impact on passengers by booking them on to other flights and utilising other types of planes from its fleet to help fill the gaps. “We are able to accommodate most intra-European passengers by these efforts but are still working on other options for our passengers traveling between Ireland and the US,” Norwegian said.
Meanwhile, the United States has said there is “no basis” to ground Boeing 737 MAX airliners as governments worldwide were prompted to ban the plane.
Despite the aviation giant’s assurances that the plane is safe and reliable, the European Union, Britain and India joined China and other countries grounding the plane or banning it from their airspace as they await the results of the investigation into the crash.
But the US has so far refused to take similar action against the American aerospace giant’s best-selling workhorse aircraft. “Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft,” Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Daniel Elwell said in a statement on Tuesday.
The widening action against the aircraft has put pressure on Boeing — the world’s biggest plane manufacturer — to prove the 737 MAX is safe, and the company has said it is rolling out flight software updates by April that could address issues with a faulty sensor.
The full extent of the impact of the bans on international travel routes was unclear. There are about 350 MAX 8s currently in service around the world. Air Canada, for example, announced it was cancelling flights to London following Britain’s decision to ban the aircraft.
“At this early stage of the related investigation, it cannot be excluded that similar causes may have contributed to both events,” it said, referring to the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes
As the number of bans and groundings of the 737 MAX grew, US President Donald Trump weighed in with a tweet on Tuesday: “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly.”
“Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT,” he wrote, referring to the prestigious university. He later spoke by telephone to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who assured the president the aircraft is safe, an industry source told AFP.
US carriers have so far appeared to maintain confidence in Boeing, which has been ordered by the FAA to make changes to flight systems and pilot training procedures.
But it was not enough to reassure the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which said it was banning the planes from British airspace “as a precautionary measure”.
Global air travel hub Singapore, as well as Australia, Malaysia and Oman, were among the other countries to ban MAX planes. Vietnam, New Zealand and Hong Kong joined them on Wednesday.
Currently, no Vietnamese carriers fly 737 MAXs, but budget carrier Vietjet has ordered 200 of them.
China, a hugely important market for Boeing, on Monday ordered domestic airlines to suspend operations of the plane. And Turkish Airlines, one of the largest carriers in the world, said it was suspending use of its 12 MAX aircraft from Wednesday, until “uncertainty” was clarified.
Low-cost airline Norwegian Air Shuttle, South Korea’s Eastar Jet and South Africa’s Comair also said they would halt flights. – Reuters/AFP/HR