WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order Wednesday grounding all Boeing 737 Max aircraft in the wake of a crash of an Ethiopian airliner that killed 157 people, a reversal for the U.S. after federal aviation regulators had maintained it had no data to show the jets are unsafe.
The decision came hours after Canada joined some 40 other countries in barring the Max 8 from its airspace, saying satellite tracking data showed possible but unproven similarities between the Ethiopian Airlines crash and a previous crash involving the model five months ago. The U.S., one of the last holdouts, also grounded a larger version of the plane, the Max 9.
The announcement affected one flight at Charleston International operated by Southwest Airlines.
Daniel Elwell, acting head of the FAA, said enhanced satellite images and new evidence gathered on the ground led his agency to order the jets out of the air.
The data, he said, linked the behavior and flight path of the Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 to data from the crash of a Lion Air jet that plunged into the Java Sea and killed 187 people in October.
"Evidence we found on the ground made it even more likely that the flight path was very close to Lion Air's," Elwell told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
Satellite data right after the crash wasn't refined enough to give the FAA what it needed to make the decision to ground planes, Elwell said. But on Wednesday, global air traffic surveillance company Aireon and Boeing were able to enhance the initial data to make it more precise "to create a description of the flight that made it similar enough to Lion Air," Elwell said.
The Ethiopian plane's flight data and voice recorders will be sent to France for analysis, Elwell said. Some aviation experts have warned that finding answers in the crash could take months.
Officials at Lion Air in Indonesia 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.
President Donald Trump, who announced the grounding, was briefed Wednesday on new developments in the investigation by Elwell and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and they determined the planes should be grounded, the White House said. Trump spoke afterward with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg and Boeing signed on.
"At the end of the day, it is a decision that has the full support of the secretary, the president and the FAA as an agency," Elwell said.
Boeing issued a statement after the announcement saying it "continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 Max" but that "out of an abundance of caution" it supported the "temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 Max aircraft."
Many nations had already barred the Max 8 from their airspace, but until Trump's announcement, the FAA had said that it didn't have any data to show the jets are unsafe. Trump cited "new information" that had come to light in the ongoing investigation into incident. He did not elaborate.
"All of those planes are grounded, effective immediately," Trump said during a scheduled briefing on border security.
Trump said the safety of the American people is of "paramount concern," and added that the FAA would soon put out a statement on the action.
Trump said the decision to ground the aircraft "didn't have to be made, but we thought it was the right decision."
The president insisted that the announcement was coordinated with aviation officials in Canada, U.S. carriers and Boeing.
"Boeing is an incredible company," Trump said. "They are working very, very hard right now and hopefully they'll quickly come up with an answer."
Boeing builds the 737 Max in Renton, Wash., and two South Carolina suppliers make parts for the jet. The company is one of the largest employers in the Charleston region, where it assembles the 787 Dreamliner.
The 737 Max 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 those that have already been grounded, there are more than 4,600 of the 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?"
Even so, Cox thinks Boeing will recover because the planes typically fly for 30 to 40 years, and any needed fix will be made quickly, he said.
Boeing's shares have plummeted almost 11 percent since Sunday's Ethiopian Airlines crash. On Wednesday, the stock sank to $363.36 after the FAA announcement but then recovered to close at $377.14, up 0.5 percent for the day. It rose slightly in after-hours trading to $378.
In making the decision to ground the Max 8s in Canada, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said a comparison of vertical fluctuations found a "similar profile" between the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the Lion Air crash. Garneau, a former astronaut who flew in the Space Shuttle, emphasized that the data are not conclusive but crossed a threshold that prompted Canada to bar the Max 8.
"This is not the proof that is the same root problem," he said. "It could be something else."
Canada lost 18 of its citizens in Sunday's crash, the second highest number after Kenya. A Canadian family of six were among the dead.
Lebanon and Kosovo also barred the Boeing 737 Max 8 from their airspace Wednesday, and Norwegian Air Shuttles said it would seek compensation from Boeing after grounding its fleet. Egypt banned the operation of the aircraft. Thailand ordered budget airline Thai Lion Air to suspend flying the planes for risk assessments. Lion Air confirmed reports it has put on hold the scheduled delivery of four of the jets.
Ethiopian Airlines, widely seen as Africa's best-managed airline, grounded its remaining four models.
The growing number of countries joining the ban put the FAA in a difficult position, said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the NTSB who is now an aviation consultant. He said the FAA, which certified the 737 Max as airworthy and has been the lead regulatory body for the airplane, prides itself on making data-driven decisions and not based on "anecdotes or political pressures."
Goelz said Trump likely was feeling pressure from Congress and the public to step in.
"There's probably nobody in the administration who's got more of a sensitive ear to cable television," said Goelz.
The FAA is also certain to be looking into anonymous reports from at pilots of at least two U.S. flights who wrote about problems last year in a NASA database, Goelz said.
The pilots reported that an automated system seemed to cause their Boeing 737 Max 8 planes to tilt down suddenly. The pilots said that soon after engaging the autopilot, the nose tilted down sharply. In both cases, they recovered quickly after disconnecting the autopilot.
Boeing's technical team joined U.S., Israeli, Kenyan and other aviation experts in the investigation of the Ethiopian Airline crash, led by Ethiopian authorities.
An Ethiopian pilot who saw the crash site minutes after the disaster told AP that the plane appeared to have "slid directly into the ground."
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam said their pilots had received special training.
"In addition to the basic trainings given for 737 aircraft types, an additional training was given for the Max version," Tewolde said. "After the Lion Air crash, questions were raised, so Boeing sent further instructions that it said pilots should know."
Tewolde said he is confident the "investigation will reveal that the crash is not related to Ethiopian Airlines' safety record."
Forensic DNA work for identifications of the remains recovered so far has not yet begun, Asrat said. The dead came from 35 countries.