The Federal Aviation Administration reversed course Wednesday and ordered the grounding of all Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 jetliners after a deadly crash last weekend in Ethiopia, saying it had new evidence of a possible connection with another fatal crash of the plane five months ago.
The agency said it took the emergency action after newly analyzed data indicated “some similarities” between the doomed flight on Sunday, in which 157 people died, and another crash of the same model jetliner in Indonesia in October. In the earlier disaster, all 189 passengers and crew died when the plane crashed minutes after takeoff.
New information from the wreckage in Ethiopia “concerning the aircraft’s configuration just after takeoff” warrants further investigation “of the possibility of a shared cause for the two incidents,” the FAA said.
President Trump made the announcement in the Oval Office Wednesday afternoon after speaking with federal transportation officials, executives from Boeing and airline officials.
“They are all in agreement with the action,” the president told reporters. “Planes that are in the air will be grounded. The safety of the American people, and all people, is our paramount concern.”
The idling of the worldwide fleet of 371 Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 series planes was expected to cause a ripple effect of delays for passengers. In the U.S., Southwest Airlines, with 34 of the jets, and American Airlines, with 24, are the carriers operating the largest number of the aircraft.
The FAA took action amid enormous pressure on the administration to follow safety precautions of almost every other nation and several airlines to suspend operations of the relatively new aircraft. When Canada grounded the plane earlier Wednesday, the U.S. was virtually alone in allowing the jetliner to fly in its airspace.
Canada’s transport minister said satellite tracking data showed possible but unproven similarities between the two disasters. Mr. Trump said the U.S. worked with Canada to make the decision to ground the planes.
On Tuesday, the FAA said it saw no reason to ground the U.S.-made plane. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke by phone with the president and assured him that the aircraft, which accounts for about one-third of the airplane manufacturer’s profit, is safe.
But the president on Wednesday cited “new information and physical evidence that we’ve received from the site, and from other locations and through a couple of other complaints.”
Mr. Trump suggested that he was personally involved in the decision.
“We didn’t have to make this decision today — could have delayed it,” Mr. Trump said. “I felt it was important both psychologically and in a lot of ways.”
Some congressional Democrats criticized the FAA for not acting sooner. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington state, chairman of the aviation subcommittee, said they will hold hearings “to get to the bottom of the FAA’s decision-making process.”
“Despite repeated assurances from the FAA in recent days, it has become abundantly clear to us that not only should the 737 MAX be grounded but also that there must be a rigorous investigation into why the aircraft, which has critical safety systems that did not exist on prior models, was certified without requiring additional pilot training,” the lawmakers said in a statement.
The suspected similarities between the Ethiopia crash and the Lion Air Max 8 disaster in Indonesia have raised questions about pilots’ ability to control the planes.
Boeing said Wednesday that it recommended to the FAA grounding the planes “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of this aircraft’s safety.”
“Safety is a core value at Boeing for as long as we have been building airplanes, and it always will be,” Mr. Muilenburg said. “We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”
The manufacturer said it has consulted with the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board and aviation authorities, and its customers “around the world.”
Boeing has nearly 5,000 orders for the aircraft from around the globe. Indonesia’s Lion Air plans to drop a $22 billion order for 737 Max jetliners and switch to A320 aircraft from rival Airbus, Bloomberg reported.
Investigators in the Indonesia disaster are focusing on a software system that causes the aircraft’s nose to point down when a single sensor detects a stall. Some pilots have reported that they have had to disengage the autopilot on the plane to stop the nose from pointing downward even when there was no danger of stalling.
Before the Ethiopia crash, Boeing said it intended to install a software fix on all the planes by the end of April.
Mr. Trump, who has been an outspoken supporter of Boeing in several trade deals, called the FAA’s suspension a “very tough decision — it’s tragic.”
“But it’s a very tough decision from the standpoint of a company like Boeing,” he said. “It’s a great, great company with a track record that is so phenomenal. They want it solved, they want it solved quickly. They have to find [the cause]. And they will find it.
“I didn’t want to take any chances,” he said.
“We all agree that this is the right decision to make,” the president said. “They are working very, very hard right now. Until they do [find a cause], the planes are grounded.”
Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he supports the FAA’s decision.
“Now it is important that we get all the additional facts through this investigation to determine exactly what happened and what next steps may be necessary to address any issues and get these aircraft safely back in service,” he said.