First flown in 1967, Boeing Co.’s 737 has become the world’s best-selling commercial aircraft. The fourth generation of jets, known as the Max, made its debut in 2017 when Indonesian low-cost carrier Lion Air became the first commercial operator. Yet two fatal crashes within five months -- Lion Air Flight 610 in October off the coast of Indonesia and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March outside Addis Ababa -- have led to a global grounding of the aircraft and put the 737’s previously sound safety record under the microscope. The crashes have also raised questions about how U.S. flight regulators came to certify the Max.
It’s too early to say. A preliminary study of the Ethiopian Air flight data recorders shows “clear similarities,” according to Ethiopia’s transport minister. There were enough parallels for the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority -- the agency that originally certified the 737 Max -- to reverse its initial recommendation not to ground the aircraft. The Lion Air Max 8 that crashed was 2 1/2 months old, the Ethiopian Air jet just four months old. Both accidents took place not long after takeoff as the planes flew erratically and pilots asked to return to the airport. The investigation into the Oct. 29 Lion Air crash pointed to a malfunction of a safety feature, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, that repeatedly forced the plane into a nosedive.