The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) decided March 12 to suspend all Boeing 737 MAX flight operations in Europe until further notice.

EASA said in a statement issued an Airworthiness Directive (AD) mandating the suspension “as a precautionary measure” and “following the tragic accident of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302.”

The agency also issued a safety directive suspending all 737 MAX operations by non-European airlines into and out of the region. Both decisions became effective at 19:00 UTC on March 12.

The agency said it is “continuously analyzing the data as it becomes available. The accident investigation is currently ongoing, and it is too early to draw any conclusions as to the cause of the accident.”

EASA was referring to the March 10 crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 near Addis Ababa in which all 157 on board were killed. The cockpit voice and flight data recorders have been recovered from the crash site, but data analysis is still pending. 

On Oct. 29, 2018, a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 crashed off the coast the Indonesian coast. Early investigation results appear to show the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), introduced on the MAX, has played a role in the chain of events.

The EASA decision was preceded by individual European Union member states, which decided earlier on March 12 to ban 737 MAX operations. The UK went first, followed by Germany and France. Industry sources report serious behind-the-scenes disputes about the unilateral decision by the UK, which appears to have triggered reaction by other countries. Several more followed, including Ireland, Austria and Switzerland.

EASA and FAA typically coordinate action closely but differ in their reaction to the two Boeing crashes.

“The UK Civil Aviation Authority has been closely monitoring the situation,” it said in a statement. “However, as we do not currently have sufficient information from the flight data recorder we have, as a precautionary measure, issued instructions to stop any commercial passenger flights from any operator arriving, departing or overflying UK airspace.” The CAA added that it remained “in close contact with the European Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] and industry regulators globally.”

Germany’s decision was initially announced by Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer in a TV interview and later confirmed by the ministry. German air traffic control provider DFS said the MAX ban in the country was foreseen to last three months. French authority DGAC pointed out that no French airlines operate the MAX, but it would close its airspace for the type as a precaution until further notice.

Before the European authorities, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and China had banned the aircraft. Individual airlines also decided to stop flying the MAX, including Aeromexico, Brazil’s GOL, Icelandair, Ethiopian and Norwegian.

As a reaction, Boeing stated that safety was its “number one priority and we have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX. We understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets. We’ll continue to engage with them to ensure they have the information needed to have confidence in operating their fleets. The United States Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] is not mandating any further action at this time, and based on the information currently available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators.”

Airlines were suffering a substantial capacity and network impact as a result of the groundings. In Europe, Norwegian was most affected with a fleet of 18 aircraft that it can no longer operate for now. The airline said it is working on re-allocating other aircraft on MAX routes, re-booking passengers and combining flights to minimize the impact. All aircraft that were airborne at the time of the decision were to continue to their destination or home base.

Turkish Airlines and TUI, which both have 12 MAXs in service, are also large MAX operators in the region.

The FAA stated March 11 that “this investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions.” The authority issued a Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community (CANIC).

Jens Flottau, jens.flottau@aviationweek.com