By Duncan Miriri
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – The Ethiopian Airlines pilot whose jet crashed killing 157 people had reported flight-control problems, the company said on Wednesday, as it prepared to send the black boxes to Europe from a disaster that has rocked the global aviation industry.
The still unexplained crash, which happened just after take-off from Addis Ababa, followed another disaster involving a Boeing 737 MAX in Indonesia five months ago that killed 189 people.
Though there is no proof of links, the twin disasters have spooked passengers, led to the grounding of most of Boeing’s 737 MAX fleet and hammered shares in the world’s biggest planemaker.
Since the Indonesia crash, there has been attention on an automated anti-stall system that dips the aircraft’s nose down.
Ethiopia Airlines spokesman Asrat Begashaw told Reuters it was still unclear what happened on Sunday, but its pilot had reported control issues – as opposed to external factors such as birds.
“The pilot reported flight control problems and requested to turn back. In fact he was allowed to turn back,” he said.
A decision where in Europe to send the black boxes would be taken by Thursday, the airline said.
Multiple nations, including the European Union, have suspended the 737 MAX, grounding about two-thirds of the 371 jets of that make in operation around the world, according to Reuters calculations.
Many airlines were managing to keep to schedule by using other jets while economic woes meant some may be grateful for a pause. The biggest impact could be on future deliveries given Boeing has nearly 5,000 more 737 MAXs on order.
India said it would not take any deliveries until safety concerns were cleared and Ethiopian Airlines said it would decide whether to cancel orders after a preliminary probe.
Passengers were fretting too, with many seeking reassurances they would not be flying on a 737 MAX. Kayak.com was the first big site to say it would modify filters to allow customers to exclude particular types of planes from queries.
Nevertheless, the United States held out against suspension and Boeing affirmed its “full confidence” in the model.
U.S. President Donald Trump, an aviation enthusiast whose ties with Boeing run deep, received safety assurances personally from its chief executive Dennis Muilenburg.
Still, Boeing shares have fallen some 11 percent since the crash, losing $26.65 billion of market value.
Possibly presaging a raft of claims, Norwegian Air said it would seek recompense for lost revenue and extra costs after grounding its 737 MAX aircraft.
“We expect Boeing to take this bill,” it said.
More than a dozen relatives of those who perished paid their respects on Wednesday at the rural site where Flight ET 302 came down in a fireball. Workers set up tents decorated with white roses.
Given problems of identification of charred remains, it will take days to start returning them to families, probably weeks for some which will require dental or DNA testing.
The victims came from more than 30 nations.
Of the top 10 nations by air passenger travel, all but the United States and Japan halted the 737 MAX. Egypt, Thailand, Lebanon, Serbia, Kosovo and Uzbekistan joined them on Wednesday.
Resisting pressure, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) acting administrator Dan Elwel said its review had shown “no systemic performance issues.”
The three U.S. airlines using the 737 MAX – Southwest Airlines Co, American Airlines Group Inc and United Airlines – stood by the aircraft.
The new variant of the world’s most-sold modern passenger aircraft was viewed as the likely workhorse for airlines for decades. But October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia sparked a debate on automation, particularly over a software system designed to push the plane down to stop a stall during flight.
Boeing says it plans to update the software in coming weeks.
Though there are no proven links between the two recent 737 MAX crashes, the United Arab Emirates’ aviation regulator said on Tuesday there were “marked similarities” and China’s regulator noted both occurred shortly after take-off.
In November, two incidents were reported to the NASA-run Aviation Safety Reporting Database that involved problems in controlling the 737 MAX at low altitude just after take-off with autopilot engaged, according to documents first published by the Dallas Morning News and verified by Reuters.
“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,” one pilot said.
In another case, the pilot said: “With the concerns with the MAX 8 nose down stuff, we thought it appropriate to bring it to your attention.”
Boeing did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but it has previously said it provided appropriate information to pilots to use an existing procedure to handle the issue of erroneous data affecting the anti-stall system.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Kumerra Gemechu in Gora-Bokka, Ethiopia; Omar Mohammed and Maggie Fick in Nairobi; Tim Hepher in Paris; David Shepardson in Washington; Jamie Freed in Singapore; Terje Solsvik in Oslo; Aditi Shah in Mumbai; Sanjana Shivdas in Bengaluru; Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jon Boyle)