President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that the U.S. will issue an emergency order to ground all Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 planes, effective immediately.
The decision comes after two deadly crashes within the last five months.
Trump said the FAA and Boeing were in agreement, even though leaders of the federal agency and the company had insisted for days after last weekend’s Ethiopian Airlines crash that the aircraft was safe. All pilots and airlines have been notified, Trump said.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines, which has nearly 1,000 planes in its fleet, had nine of the 737 Max jets in the air at the time of the president’s announcement, a spokeswoman said. Those aircraft were continuing to their next stop. Travelers holding tickets for trips on the planes will be booked on other aircraft.
“Our teams will make every effort to rebook customers as quickly as possible, and we apologize for any inconvenience,” American Airlines said in a statement sent by email. “We appreciate the FAA’s partnership, and will continue to work closely with them, the Department of Transportation, National Transportation Safety Board and other regulatory authorities, as well as our aircraft and engine manufacturers.“
Trump’s Wednesday afternoon announcement came unexpectedly, after FAA officials spent two days proclaiming the 737 Max planes were safe. The decision came hours after Canada banned the planes, claiming its review of satellite imagery of the Ethiopian Airlines flight showed similarities to the 737 Max crash of a Lion Air just five months ago.
“The safety of the American people and all people is our paramount concern,” Trump said, adding that the FAA will announce “new information and physical evidence that we’ve received from the site, and from other locations, and through a couple of other complaints.”
Several pilots warned of problems with the autopilot features on Boeing 737 Max aircraft months before this weekend’s Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed 157 people.
The pilots noted their concerns on a database known as the Aviation Safety Reporting System, which offers pilots a place to describe their experiences without repercussions. The database contributors aren’t identified by name or airline.
The pilots’ complaints shed light on a subject of growing worldwide interest. Australia, China, Europe and the United Kingdom ground the planes earlier this week.
One pilot reported in November that shortly after a normal takeoff, as he engaged the aircraft’s autopilot feature, the plane began quickly descending and the ground proximity warning system called out “Don’t sink! Don’t sink!”
American Airlines flies 24 of the 737 Max 8 aircraft, and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines flies 34 of them.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram searched the NASA database and found three complaints. The Dallas Morning News, which originally broke the story about the pilots’ complaints, reported finding five complaints about the Max 8.
In another incident in November, a pilot reported a problem that also began just after takeoff, moments after the captain engaged autopilot.
“The Captain immediately disconnected the autopilot and pitched into a climb,” the pilot wrote. “The remainder of the flight was uneventful.”
Finally, the pilot added, “We discussed the departure at length and I reviewed in my mind our automation setup and flight profile but can’t think of any reason the aircraft would pitch nose down so aggressively.”
The U.S. was one of the last countries to ground the aircraft, after Canada ordered the planes parked earlier Wednesday.
The Federal Aviation Administration had maintained that Boeing’s latest model aircraft was safe, despite the two fatal crashes.
The FAA maintained that there was no new evidence showing a mechanical issue with the 737 Max. A preliminary investigation of the Lion Air crash indicated that an aircraft sensor malfunctioned, forcing the plane’s automatic controls to dip the nose, even as the pilots were trying to climb in altitude — but the FAA maintained that its manual already described what pilots should do to shut off the automatic controls in the event of such an incident.
But the FAA eventually gave in to worldwide concerns about the similarities between the two crashes, and the possibility that a malfunction of the aircraft’s electronic pitch control system could cause another crash.
Among those calling for the FAA to take action was U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who said he Tuesday afternoon he intended to hold hearings on the crashes as chairman of the a Senate subcommittee on aviation.
“In light of the decisions of regulatory agencies across the world to ground the Model 737 Max, including those in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, and other countries, I believe it would be prudent for the United States likewise to temporarily ground 737 Max aircraft until the FAA confirms the safety of these aircraft and their passengers,” Cruz said in an email. “Further investigation may reveal that mechanical issues were not the cause, but until that time, our first priority must be the safety of the flying public.”
Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney also called for the FAA to ground the 737 Max aircraft out of “an abundance of caution for the flying public.”
Even President Trump contradicted his own FAA leadership, by tweeting Tuesday morning that airplanes “are becoming far too complex to fly.”