Boeing’s newest plane becomes company’s biggest headache

Chinese relatives of victims who died in the crash visit and grieve at the scene where the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff on Sunday killing all 157 on board, near Bishoftu, or Debre Zeit, south of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Much of the world, including the entire European Union, has grounded the Boeing jetliner involved in the Ethiopian Airlines crash or banned it from their airspace, leaving the United States as one of the few remaining operators of the plane involved in two deadly accidents in just five months. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Boeing’s newest version of its best-selling airliner ever was supposed to boost its fortunes for years to come.

Instead it has turned into the company’s biggest headache, with more than 40 countries — including the U.S., which had been one of the last holdouts — grounding the 737 Max 8 after a second fatal crash proved one too many.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order keeping the planes on the tarmac after refusing to do so in the days immediately following the crash of a Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines that left 157 people dead.

The agency said what made the difference was new, enhanced satellite tracking data and physical evidence on the ground that linked the Ethiopian jet’s movements to those of an Indonesian Lion Air flight that plunged into the Java Sea in October and killed 189 people.

“That evidence aligns the Ethiopian flight closer to Lion Air, what we know happened to Lion Air,” said Daniel Elwell, acting FAA administrator.

Officials at Lion Air have said sensors on their plane produced erroneous information on its last four flights, triggering an automatic nose-down command that the pilots were unable to overcome on its final voyage.

The French air accident investigation authority, known by its French acronym BEA, said today it will handle the analysis of the black boxes retrieved from the crash site.

A BEA official told The Associated Press that they have already arrived in France but gave no time frame on how long the analysis could take. The BEA has experience with global air crashes, and its expertise is often sought whenever an Airbus plane crashes because the manufacturer is based in France.

Since debuting in 2017, Boeing has delivered more than 350 of the Max in several versions that vary by size. Dozens of airlines around the world have embraced the plane for its fuel efficiency and utility for short and medium-haul flights.

The groundings will have a far-reaching financial impact on Boeing, at least in the short term, said John Cox, a veteran pilot and CEO of Safety Operating Systems.

In addition to the planes that have been grounded, there are more than 4,600 Boeing 737 Max 8 planes on backlog that are not yet delivered to airlines.

“There are delivery dates that aren’t being met, there’s usage of the aircraft that’s not being met, and all the supply chain things that Boeing so carefully crafted,” Cox said. “If they can’t deliver the airplanes, where do they put the extra engines and the extra fuselage and the extra electrical components?”

Impacted airlines also may come knocking on Boeing’s door claiming damages. Norwegian Airlines said it would pursue reimbursement from Boeing for lost business and if other carriers follow suit, that could be costly. Whether airlines would be successful with such claims depends on the details of the contracts those carriers have with Boeing, said Dan Rose, partner at Kreindler & Kreindler, an aviation law firm.

“One way or another, whether there’s a contractual provision that covers it or not, there are almost certainly going to be claims made against them,” Rose said.

In a research note earlier this week, Morgan Stanley called the grounding of the fleet a “worst-case scenario” that would disrupt near-term profitability because the 737 covers 70 percent of Boeing’s commercial production. The Max fleet was expected to make up most of the 737 deliveries this year and all deliveries over the next three years, according to data compiled by Morgan Stanley.