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The Latest On The Investigation Of Ethiopian Airlines Crash Of Boeing 737 Max 8 Jet


Investigators in Ethiopia are trying to understand why a new jetliner crashed on Sunday. The Boeing 737 Max 8 went down not long after takeoff from Addis Ababa. All 157 people onboard died. The accident has similarities to an October crash in Indonesia. More than 30 airlines use the 737 Max worldwide. Several of them grounded their fleets today. Here in the United States, airlines and regulators are not ready to take that step just yet, as NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Dennis Tajer flies the 737 Max 8 for American Airlines. And he's a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association union. Tajer was interviewed on NPR's Here And Now.


DENNIS TAJER: They're asking about additional training. They're asking you about what information they may not have that they should have had before. So it's a very stressful time for our men and women out there.

LEWIS: The Boeing 737 is aviation's workhorse. Safe and reliable variations of the jet have flown since the 1960s. It is the world's most popular plane. And worldwide, a 737 takes off or lands every five seconds. But the Max version is new. It started flying two years ago with more fuel efficient engines, an updated flight deck and improved flight control systems. Those systems are believed to be a cause of the October Lion air crash in Indonesia. It's too early to know if the Ethiopian plane had similar problems, but there are growing calls for the plane to be grounded.

DAVID SOUCIE: These decisions are difficult decisions. But yet, they have to be made. And that's where we are right now.

LEWIS: David Soucie worked for the Federal Aviation Administration for 17 years as a safety regulator. He also co-wrote a book entitled "Why Planes Crash." Soucie says with Sunday's accident in Ethiopia, he's surprised the U.S. government hasn't moved quicker.

SOUCIE: We can't be the nice guy all the time. We can't promote aviation and regulate aviation at the same time. And there's a time when you have to put just strictly the regulation hat on and say, what's safest here? Look at the facts. Look what's happened.

LEWIS: Soucie says he would not fly on a Boeing 737 Max today. There are 350 in use worldwide. In the United States, airlines fly 72 of them. Southwest operates the most, just 5 percent of its total fleet. American and United also fly them. Today the airlines told NPR their planes are safe, and pilot training is up to date. And, as of now, they have no plans to stop flying the 737 Maxes.

LES WESTBROOKS: We don't have enough information to be concerned about this yet.

LEWIS: Les Westbrooks teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and is a former commercial pilot. He says accident investigations take time. A final report on October's crash in Indonesia is still not completed. Until then, he says, there should be no rush to judgment or knee-jerk decisions. Flying is still the safest mode of travel by far. There are rarely crashes. One of the reasons is the high level and sophistication of automation. But Westbrooks says that has created a problem.

WESTBROOKS: It has given us great safety. It has increased safety dramatically, the automation, automated systems on the airplanes. But at the same time, it's taken us out of the cockpit and taken our attention away from flying the airplane and how to fly the airplane manually.

LEWIS: That will be just one of the areas that investigators will zero in on to figure out why the Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed just minutes after takeoff. Russell Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.
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