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EDITORIAL: Identical Boeing planes crash. What’s to be done? Wait for the facts

An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8, on a flight from Miami to New York City, comes in for landing at LaGuardia Airport on Monday morning, March 11, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A plane falls out of the sky and people jump to conclusions.

And who can blame them?

The jetliner that crashed after taking off Sunday from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killing all 157 passengers, was a Boeing 737 Max 8. It was exactly the same model of plane that crashed last fall, on Oct. 29, in the Java Sea near Indonesia, killing 189.

In a second similarity, the pilots of both planes were trying to return to their airports after experiencing unstable vertical speed soon after takeoff.

If ever there was a need to gather the facts, though, before reacting — or overreacting — this would seem to be it. The two crashes shared similar features, but in other ways were markedly different. And 350 other planes of the same model have been flying all around the world for two years without incident.

Two investigations are underway. We’ll await their findings.


Lion Air, operator of the jetliner that crashed last fall, was criticized for not properly maintaining its plane or training its crew in anti-stall technology that apparently pushed the nose of the plane down. The pilot of the Ethiopian plane, however, was experienced and the airline — Africa’s largest in the number of destinations and annual passengers — is considered to be among that continent’s safest.

Aviation experts said Monday it was unlikely an experienced pilot would have been unaware of the circumstances around the Indonesian crash and would have known what to do if the same thing happened to his aircraft. The Associated Press reported Monday that a witness to the Ethiopian crash said smoke was coming from rear of the plane before it hit the ground.

Two flight recorders found on Monday will reveal more.

Meanwhile, China and Indonesia have grounded all of their Max 8 jets. Ethiopian Airlines is grounding its Max 8s, and smaller airlines have grounded a handful of the jets elsewhere. On Wall Street, Chicago-based Boeing’s stock tumbled early on Monday. But Boeing said it has no plans to pull the newest version of its most popular airliner from the skies, and airlines in the United States said they plan to continue flying them. Southwest Airlines said its 34 Max jets have safely flown 31,000 flights.

Full, thorough investigations into airline crashes take a long time, sometimes years. The thoroughness is what gives airplane manufactures and airlines reliable information on what went wrong and what to do to make their planes safer.

Such painstaking work by the National Transportation Safety Board over the years, along with stricter requirements for pilot testing and training, explains why air travel has become so safe. America’s only accidental airliner death since 2009 occurred last April when a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737’s fan blade shattered in flight and killed a passenger.

Although a clearer picture is emerging of what went wrong in the Lion Air crash, that investigation is not yet over, and the probe of the Ethiopian crash is just beginning. As Harro Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about aviation accidents worldwide, told the Associated Press, “I do hope … people will wait for the first results of the investigation instead of jumping to conclusions based on the very little facts that we know so far.”

Robert A. Clifford, whose Chicago law office has been involved in lawsuits involving many plane crashes around the world, said part of the problem is that the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t moved quickly enough to deal with the faulty sensors and control system components suspected to have caused the Lion Air crash.

“How many more people have to be killed before this issue is resolved?” Clifford said.

But former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune told CNBC the FAA should not ground Boeing’s Max 8 planes because hundreds of them have been flying for two years without incident. Bethune said a clearer picture of what went wrong should emerge quickly because the flight recorders have been found. The FAA on Monday issued a global notice of the Max 8’s “continued airworthiness,” Bloomberg News reported.

Passenger advocate groups say it’s difficult to choose a particular aircraft model when making flying plans because airlines might switch planes up until the last day or two before a flight. If a passenger chooses to cancel anyway, it’s unlikely that an airline will refund their ticket or honor a discount, and flight insurance probably won’t cover it, either, because it is a passenger decision.

Any airline crash is frightening, and two especially deadly ones so close together, involving the same airplane model, are especially a cause for worry. But the best response, for now, is keep an eye on both investigations — and make sure that whatever went wrong is fixed.

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