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Virgin Australia’s order of Boeing 737 MAX 8s unchanged; China grounds entire fleet

In the wake of the latest tragedy, China’s Civil Aviation Authority issued a notice to Chinese airlines suspending operation of Boeing 737-8 aircraft on Monday morning.

“In view of the fact that the both air crashes are recently-delivered Boeing 737-8 aircraft, and they both occurred in the take-off phase, and had certain similarities,” the authority stated, “in line with the management principle of zero tolerance for safety hazards and strict control of safety risks” it had grounded the aircraft in China.

Wreckage lies at the site of the weekend's Ethiopian Airlines crash.

Wreckage lies at the site of the weekend’s Ethiopian Airlines crash.Credit:AP

The Chinese authority said it was seeking information from Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration about measures to “effectively ensure flight safety”.

A blanket grounding in one of the world’s biggest and most influential travel markets is a further blow to Boeing’s reputation – and a potential threat to the Chicago-based plane maker’s finances.

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There are 96 of the Boeing 737-8 in use in China, across multiple airlines.

Boeing sells a third of all its 737s to Chinese airlines and had projected Chinese demand for 7690 new planes worth $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years. The company competes with Airbus for Chinese sales.

Chinese purchases of more Boeing aircraft were also believed to have been on the table in trade war negotiations between the Trump Administration and the Chinese government.

‘Certain similarities’

While investigations into both crashes are ongoing and the exact cause of the Ethiopian Airlines crash is unclear, as the Chinese authority stated, there are similarities between the two.

The control tower lost contact with the Ethiopian Airlines flight shortly after it took off from Bole airport in Addis Ababa at 8.38am local time.

Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam said before contact was lost with the plane, the pilot radioed to say he was experiencing difficulty and asked to return to Addis Ababa.

The Lion Air flight in Indonesia also crashed just minutes after taking off. Data from that aircraft’s black box showed the pilots fought to save the plane from nosediving after an automatic system apparently received incorrect sensor readings. The cause of the crash is still being investigated.

Following Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash, a Boeing spokesman said the company was saddened to learn of the tragedy.

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“We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board and stand ready to support the Ethiopian Airlines team,” the spokesman said in a statement.

“A Boeing technical team is prepared to provide technical assistance at the request and under the direction of the US National Transportation Safety Board.”

When asked whether the crash would affect Virgin Australia’s plans to use the aircraft, a company spokeswoman said: “It’s too early to comment at this stage.”

After the Lion Air crash, Virgin Australia declined to comment as the exact cause of the crash had not yet been determined.

The spokeswoman said Virgin Australia’s thoughts were with the families of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

Virgin Australia ordered the Boeing aircraft in 2012. About the same time, Qantas also considered adding the Boeing MAX to its fleet, but instead ordered 99 Airbus A320neo planes.

While Virgin Australia does not have any of the planes in its fleet currently, a number of popular airlines around the world use the best-selling Boeing aircraft, including United Airlines and Ryanair.

Chinese carriers account for about 20 per cent of 737 Max deliveries worldwide through January, according to the company’s website.

China Southern Airlines has 16 of the aircraft, with another 34 on order, according to data through January on Boeing’s website. China Eastern Airlines has 13, while Air China has 14, Boeing says. Other Chinese airlines to have bought the MAX include Hainan Airlines and Shandong Airlines.

Eight Chinese died in the Ethiopian crash, including a Hong Kong resident working for the United Nations, and two staff from China Electronics Technology Group Corporation and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, Chinese media reported.

with Bloomberg

Rachel Clun is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.

Kirsty Needham is China Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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