Comair grounds Boeing 737 MAX following Ethiopian Airlines crash

Comair to consult with other operators, Boeing and technical experts to ensure the aircraft is safe.

Comair executive director Wrenelle Stander (pictured) announced on Monday that the company has decided to temporarily remove its Boeing 737 MAX from its flight schedule while it consults with other operators, Boeing and technical experts. 

She assured the public that this was a precautionary step as neither the regulatory authorities nor the manufacturer have required it to do so. 

Wrenelle said that although Comair had done extensive preparatory work prior to the introduction of the first 737 MAX into its fleet and remain confident in the inherent safety of the aircraft, “the safety and confidence of our customers and crew is always our priority.” 

This comes after an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 crashed on 10 March and all 157 people on board died. 

Analysts are drawing similarities between the crash in Ethiopia and a Lion Air crash off the coast of Indonesia five months ago that killed all 189 on board, involving the same model of plane. A preliminary report revealed that the likely cause of the Lion Air crash was a problem with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which forces the plane’s nose down if it detects an unsafe angle with the ground. Following this crash, Boeing issued an advisory that all pilots be trained in how to override this functionality. 

There is no evidence as yet that the same issue cause the Ethiopian Airlines crash, but there are similarities between final moments of the flight paths of the two planes. 

Boeing is planning to deploy a software upgrade across the fleet in the coming weeks, but this upgrade was already planned prior to the Ethiopian Airlines crash. 

The company confirmed it had been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX, designed “to make an already safe aircraft even safer”. 

Comair has an aggressive strategy to improve efficiencies and increase revenue, and part of this is an ongoing fleet investment cycle.

Comair CFO Kirsten King explained to CFO South Africa in an earlier interview:

“The aircraft are starting to pay for themselves, there’s a fuel burn saving of between 11 percent and 15 percent on a 737-800 vs a 737-400. This means that kulula can keep its average fare down, putting pressure on other airlines in terms of fuel costs. In fact, we have had our most profitable years when the oil price is high.”

Read more: Comair's Kirsten King: Flying high and staying grounded

According to Comair, the MAX is the latest iteration of the most common commercial aircraft ever manufactured. It is well-established around the world, particularly in the fleets of large carriers in the United States. There are currently over 370 Boeing 737 MAXs in operation, across 47 airlines. The type operates approximately 1 500 flights a day and has accumulated over 250 000 flights in total with an excellent record of daily reliability.