The United States will mandate that Boeing Co implement design changes by April that have been in the works for months for the 737 MAX 8 fleet after a fatal crash in October but said the plane was airworthy and did not need to be grounded after a second crash on Sunday.
An Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off on Sunday, killing all 157 aboard and raising questions about the safety of the new variant of the industry workhorse, one of which also crashed in Indonesia in October, killing 189 people.
Boeing confirmed the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement late Monday that it will deploy a software upgrade across the 737 MAX 8 fleet “in the coming weeks” as pressure mounted.
Two US senators called the fleet’s immediate grounding and a rising number of airlines said they would voluntarily ground their fleets.
The company confirmed it had for several months “been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer.”
Boeing did not reference Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash in connection to the software upgrade. The statement did express the company’s condolences to the relatives of the 157 people who died, however.
The FAA said the changes will “provide reduced reliance on procedures associated with required pilot memory items.”
The FAA also said Boeing will “update training requirements and flight crew manuals to go with the design change” to an automated protection system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS. The changes also include MCAS activation and angle of attack signal enhancements.
The FAA said in the notice made public that external reports are drawing similarities between the crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia.
“However, this investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions,” according to the Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community for Boeing 737 MAX 8 operators.
US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told reporters regulators would not hesitate to act if they find a safety issue.
“If the FAA identifies an issue that affects safety, the department will take immediate and appropriate action,” Chao told reporters.
“I want people to be assured that we take these incidents, these accidents very seriously.”
Boeing’s top executive told employees on Monday he was confident in the safety of the US manufacturer’s top-selling 737 MAX aircraft. The company added that it was “still early” in the Ethiopian Airlines investigation.
Reuters and other media outlets have reported that Boeing has for months planned design changes after the Lion Air crash in Indonesia but the FAA notice was the first public confirmation.
Canada’s transport minister also said he will not hesitate to act once the cause of the crash is known.
Two Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Blumenthal called for the immediate grounding of the aircraft, as did Paul Hudson, the president of FlyersRights.org and a member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee.
Blumenthal said the planes “should be grounded until the FAA can assure American travellers that these planes are safe.”
Sara Nelson, the president of Association of Flight Attendants union, wrote the FAA on Monday asking it to conduct a comprehensive review and “take steps immediately to address concerns and ensure the safety of the 737 MAX fleet.”
The National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA are both at the crash site in Ethiopia, Chao said. Boeing’s shares fell as much as 10 percent on the prospect that two such crashes in such a short time could reveal flaws in its new plane.
Boeing, whose shares closed down 5.3 percent at $400.01 in the heaviest trading trade since July 2013.
The 737 line, which has flown for more than 50 years, is the world’s best-selling modern passenger aircraft and viewed as one of the industry’s most reliable. China ordered its airlines to ground the jet, a move followed by Indonesia and Ethiopia. Other airlines, from North America to the Middle East, kept flying the 737 MAX 8 on Monday after Boeing said it was safe.
Boeing’s 737 MAX is the newest version of a jet that has been a fixture of passenger travel for decades and the cash cow of the world’s largest aircraft maker, competing against Airbus SE’s A320neo family of single-aisle jetliners. The 737 family is considered one of the industry’s most reliable aircraft.
The MAX has a bigger and more efficient engine compared with earlier 737 models.
Boeing rolled out the fuel-efficient MAX 8 in 2017 as an update to the already redesigned 50-year-old 737, and had delivered 350 MAX jets out of the total order tally of 5,011 aircraft by the end of January.
The post-Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe continues to struggle to establish its legitimacy. While this is the case the terms of its future international re-engagement will continue to occupy the Zanu-PF government.
The government’s problems are compounded by the international outcry over its brutal response to the protests against massive fuel price hikes in January. At least 16 people died and hundreds were wounded from ‘gunshots, dog bites, assaults and torture".
The events of January once again underscored the fault lines in Zimbabwe’s foreign relations. One the one hand the Southern African Development Community came out in support of a member state in the face of clear evidence of state brutality against its citizens. It even went so far as to condemn the continuing “illegal sanctions” against Zimbabwe.
In contrast, the UK, EU and the US all condemned the human rights abuses of the Zimbabwean state. They called for a return to the commitment to political and economic reforms. And they renewed their calls for as inclusive, credible national dialogue to map the way forward.
These responses once again show how polarised regional and western government policies are on the Zimbabwe crisis. This has had another consequence – the sidelining of efforts to reach a consensus on economic and political reforms. There have been at least three efforts at some sort of reconciliation over the past decade. The first was during the Global Political Agreement (2009-2013), again in the aftermath of the November 2017 coup, and then again in the run up to the 2018 elections.
Another consequence of the fallout from January is that Mnangagwa’s government has reached out further to its authoritarian economic and political partners in Eurasia. The problem with this is that linkages with other autocratic regimes provide some protection against forces pushing for democratic change. In addition, these relationships tend to consolidate those in the military and business sectors who see any prospect of serious economic and political reform as a threat.
A statement issued by the current head of the Southern African Development Community repeated the official position of the Zimbabwe government. It criticised “some internal players, in particular NGOs, supported by external players (who have) continued to destabilise the country.”
Early signs of this position were clear in South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech at the International Labour Organisation in January. He claimed that sanctions against the country were no longer necessary because the government had “embarked on democracy”.
Once again the regional body has conflated genuine concerns over imperial interventions in the developing world with the fight for democratic and human rights by national forces. Like Zanu PF – both under former President Robert Mugabe and Mnangagwa – Southern African Development Community has affirmed its support for a selective anti-imperialist narrative by an authoritarian nationalist regime that conflates the fight for democratic rights with outside intervention.
The response from the EU couldn’t have been more different. A resolution of the European Parliament in mid-February strongly condemned the violence and excessive force used in January. It reminded the government of Zimbabwe that long term support for it is dependent on “comprehensive reforms rather than mere promises”.
The resolution also called on the European Parliament to:
(review restrictive measures against) individuals and entities in Zimbabwe, including those measures currently suspended, in the light of accountability for recent state violence.
This position in effect put on hold any new restrictive measures against the Zanu-PF government. It also left open the option for renewed dialogue.
The debate on sanctions on Zimbabwe has been lost in the region and on the continent. And this solidarity with the Mnangagwa regime is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.
Change, if any, might come from the EU and US. It’s possible that they could change their positions again if the Mnangagwa government made another attempt at minimalist reforms.
The current US policy in Africa is targeted against what it considers to be the “rapidly expanding” financial and political influence of China and Russia on the continent. Trump is also looking to make the US the major player in the new battle for metal resources in Africa. This new struggle for technology metals is taking place in countries such as Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Tanzania and Sierra Leone.
The White House announced this week that it has extended sanctions against Zimbabwe for another year. Nevertheless, at some stage the politics of US strategic interests in Africa could lead to a more accommodating relationship with an authoritarian regime such as the Mnangagwa administration. This has happened on many occasions in its foreign policy interventions.
The EU is in a “wait and see” mode. It will need evidence of some notable movement by the Zimbabwean state on the political and economic reform front before it pushes the re-engagement process forward.
Mnangagwa’s regime has yet to show that it is any different from Mugabe’s. Given the continuing factional battles in the ruling party – and its inability to imagine itself out of power – it is difficult to view the current government as anything other than a continuation of the authoritarian Zanu-PF’s legacy.