Embattled Boeing is Faced With New Crisis with Iran Plane Crash

As investigators scramble to work out what caused a Boeing 737-800 to crash early Wednesday, the embattled plane maker is grappling with another catastrophe as it continues to reel from its 737 Max crisis.

The Ukraine-bound 737-800 crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s main international airport, killing all 176 onboard the plane. Early reports from Iranian state media attributed the crash to engine failure. Ukraine’s embassy in Iran initially concurred, issuing a press release ruling out terrorism but then removed it without explanation.

 

Bodies of the victims of a Ukrainian plane crash are collected by the rescue team at the scene of the crash in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Jan. 8, 2020. 
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

 

A later statement from the embassy said that a panel has begun an investigation and that “any statements about the causes of the accident before the decision of the commission are not official.”

The disaster comes as Boeing struggles to rehabilitate its image after two fatal crashes within five months led to the worldwide grounding of its 737 Max in 2019. That crisis has cost Boeing more than $9 billion and led to the firing of chief executive Dennis Muilenburg just weeks ago. The Chicago-based company is facing many lawsuits from victims’ families, shareholders and airlines like American and Southwest. In December, Boeing announced that it would indefinitely stop production on the Max in January — which it had continued to supply at the cost of $1.5 billion a month — an interruption that would ripple throughout the economy and jeopardize tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

The 737-800 is one of Boeing’s hottest planes, with thousands operational worldwide. It’s part of a category of aircraft referred to as “next generation,” or NG, which has been in commission since the mid-1990s, and doesn’t use the MCAS control system, whose flaws played a role in the 737 Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

The Iran crash was the 10th casualty of a Boeing 737 NG plane in its commercial life, according to Todd Curtis, an aviation safety analyst for AirSafe.com. The plane has had about 0.06 fatal events per million flights, a rock bottom rate among modern aircraft that have flown for several years, Curtis said. A 737-800 was involved in a 2018 crash in Papua New Guinea that killed 47, a 2016 flight from Dubai that killed 62, and a 2010 Ethiopian Ethiopian Airlines flight that killed 90.

The plane has faced regulatory scrutiny recently. In early October, the Federal Aviation Administration told airlines to examine more than 1,900 Boeing jets after cracks were found in a number of the aircraft’s wings. Dozens of them were later grounded after cracks were found in a part of the plane that connects the wings to the fuselage.

“This is a tragic event and our heartfelt thoughts are with the crew, passengers, and their families,” Boeing said in a tweet Wednesday. “We are in contact with our airline customer and stand by them in this difficult time. We are ready to assist in any way needed.”

The Ukraine International Airlines jet that went down Wednesday was three years old and had been serviced on Monday, the Kyiv-based carrier said in a statement. After the crash, Ukraine and the flagship airlines of France, Germany and the Netherlands suspended flights in Iranian airspace.

 

The map shows a Ukraine-bound airplane crash near Tehran.
J.magno/AP

 

The Iranian Students’ News Agency, a state-run media organization, shared a video that it said showed the crash. In it, a ball of flame descends in the distance before erupting, lighting up the predawn sky. Another video tweeted by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency showed parts of a plane scattered and ablaze on the ground. Iranian officials and state-run media have attributed the crash to an engine fire.

“There is no similarity between the issue here and the Max,” said John Cox, an airline safety consultant and former pilot, who described the plane as a “veteran workhorse.”

The plane’s CFM56 engines are jointly produced by General Electric and Safran, a French manufacturer. The CFM56 is among the best-selling jet engines in the world, with more than 30,000 of them delivered so far, according to the company’s website. In a statement, the company said any speculation regarding the explanation of the Iran crash is “premature.”

Modern aircraft are designed to be able to fly safely for more than an hour in the event of engine failure with a single-engine, but a significant failure could cause damage to other parts of an aircraft.

 

Debris is seen from a Ukrainian plane that crashed as authorities work at the scene in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Jan. 8, 2020.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

 

Rescue workers recovered the black box from the crash site, Iranian state media reported, but Ali Abedzadeh, head of Tehran’s Civil Aviation Organization, said that Tehran won’t send it to the United States — as some countries do for assistance in data collection. He said Iran would lead in the investigation of the crash, which killed 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to a tweet from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko.

“Politics have no place in an accident investigation. We fly these airplanes all around the world, all across geographic borders,” Cox said. “The investigation needs to be excluded from the tensions of any governments. I am hopeful the Iranians will follow international protocol and allow any parties that can add value to the investigation.”

He added that grounding the plane would be “ill-advised” until much more information is available.

Boeing is the single biggest component of the Dow Jones industrial average. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC in August that problems with the 737 Max had been big enough to shave 0.4 percent off the entire U.S. gross domestic product for a period this year. Ross said he expected an uptick when the problems were fixed, but it’s unclear what the effect might be, as Boeing is stopping the jet’s production. Its shares were down 1.3 percent in premarket trading.

Curtis, who previously worked as a safety engineer at Boeing, said the company typically provides information to support crash investigations outside the United States.

“Even if Boeing can’t be in the investigation in Iran, it’s likely they will be involved,” he said.


Portions of this Report Originally Appeared in The Washington Post

Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.

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