Pilot of crashed Ethiopian Airlines jet reported flight-control problems

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FAA won’t order grounding of Boeing 737 Max planes

Aviation analyst Michael Boyd discusses how the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced that it will not ground Boeing 737 Max planes. This statement from the FAA comes after the fatal crash in Ethiopia.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—The pilot of the Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed Sunday reported that he was having flight-control problems and wanted to return to the airport, but didn’t indicate any other technical faults or other difficulties during the jet’s short ascent, according to the carrier’s chief.

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In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Chief Executive Tewolde Gebremariam declined to discuss the flight or the crash investigation further, but said the conversation between the pilot and ground control didn’t point to any external issues, like a bird collision, that might help investigators narrow the possible causes. The pilot “reported back to air-traffic controllers that he was having flight-control problems” and wanted to return to Addis Ababa, Mr. Gebremariam said.

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The few details about the pilot’s communication come as pressure mounts on Boeing Co., the maker of the 737 Max 8 that crashed, killing all 157 aboard. The crash happened less than five months after another 737 Max 8, operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air, crashed in the Java Sea in October, killing 189 people.

In the Indonesian crash, investigators are focusing on flight-control issues during its 11 minutes in the air, as well as probing maintenance and the actions of the plane’s pilots. Investigators are still months from a final conclusion.

The general similarities between the two crashes—both involved brand new Max 8s that went down shortly after takeoff—have prompted increased scrutiny of the jet. Boeing has stood by the safety of the plane in the face of a wave of global groundings, passenger unease and calls by flight crew unions and American politicians to consider parking the jet.

How quickly the grounded jets can start flying again could come down to how quickly airlines and governments are assured the plane is safe. While a full-blown investigation of the Ethiopian crash will take months, investigators can extract data from the plane’s black boxes within days. Those devices, which record key data and communications, are key to investigators.

Mr. Gebremariam, the Ethiopian Airlines CEO, said those black boxes would be sent to Europe for analysis, although a final determination as to which country hasn’t been made. He said the U.K., France and Germany were being considered, as well as the European Union Aviation Safety Agency based in Cologne, Germany, and that a decision would be made Wednesday. The Journal earlier reported that U.S. and Ethiopian officials were discussing the destination of the black boxes, with American officials quietly pushing for them to be sent to the U.S.

Boeing said it is working on a fix to address some of the flight-control issues raised by the Lion Air crash. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reiterated Tuesday that the aircraft is safe, and no American operator has grounded the plane. “Our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft,” the agency said. U.S. carriers, sticking by the FAA guidance, have said they have no plans to ground flights.

The U.S. is one of just a few taking that stance. The European Union, China and a handful of other countries and airlines have grounded the jet, idling most of the global fleet, which numbers more than 370.

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Apart from a growing reputational crisis, Boeing faces mounting commercial pressure, too. Lion Air said Wednesday it had asked Boeing to delay deliveries of new MAX jets until the Indonesian investigation concludes later this year.

“This accident in Ethiopia has raised further questions that make us want to delay delivery of Max planes until we can get assurance that they’re safe,” said Daniel Putut, Lion Air Group’s managing director. He said that Lion, with more than 201 planes on order, hadn’t reached an agreement with Boeing over the sought-after delays.

Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA, one of the biggest 737 MAX customers, with 110 on order, said Wednesday it expects Boeing to compensate it for the financial impact of the suspension. Norwegian Air has had to cancel 19 flights, including trans-Atlantic services to the U.S. that use the 737 Max 8. Norwegian grounded its 18 737 Max 8 aircraft Tuesday.

While bigger airlines, with large fleets, have more flexibility to swap out aircraft, smaller carriers are more limited. Compensation from equipment makers for such service disruptions are common in the industry.

Bernstein Research analyst Daniel Roeska said Norwegian may lose as much as $46,000 per 737 Max a day because of the groundings.

“We have not made any [cost] calculations at this time as our main priority is to ensure that affected passengers are being taken care of in the best possible way,” said Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen, senior vice president of communications at Norwegian. The airline said it worked through the night to redeploy its fleet, merge flights and rebook passengers on other flights to limit consequences for travelers.

India’s SpiceJet Ltd. said it was canceling 14 flights Wednesday after its regulator late Tuesday also grounded the plane. The airline has a dozen 737 Max 8 aircraft in a fleet of 76 planes.

Boeing wasn’t immediately available for comment early Wednesday, but has said it wouldn’t comment on discussions it has with customers over the groundings.

Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand and Lebanon on Wednesday joined regulators from China to Europe in grounding the plane after the Sunday crash in Ethiopia. In Canada, where the plane is still cleared to fly, Sunwing grounded its four 737 Max 8s late Tuesday. Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneu on Wednesday is due to address questions about the plane publicly.

South Korean aviation safety officials, who have ordered extra checks of the 737 Max before allowing them to resume flying, said they were waiting for information from the FAA about the plane. “I do think that FAA needs to bring out a guideline for us because we’re going to be needing it to find out what could be wrong with the aircraft,” Park Joo-hwan, a deputy director of the ministry division overseeing the government review, said in an interview.

—Yohannes Anberbir contributed to the article.