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Boeing 737 Max grounding spreads to India, Malaysia and Australia

Trump raises questions about computer-driven air flight

A Boeing 737 Max 8 is seen parked at Boeing's Renton Assembly Plant in Renton, Washington, U.S. on Monday. Airlines in multiple countries grounded the same model jetliner following Sunday's crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8.   © AP

TOKYO -- Countries across Asia joined in the suspension of Boeing 737 Max 8 jets from operating Tuesday, days after Ethiopian Airlines crash raised safety fears over the U.S. company's fastest-selling plane.

India's Ministry of Civil Aviation announced on Twitter early Wednesday morning that it was grounding the Max 8, saying the planes "will be grounded till appropriate modifications and safety measures are undertaken to ensure their safe operations."

Malaysia went a step further, not only suspending all Max 8 operations flying to and from the country's airports, but also banning the plane from entering its airspace until further notice.

Australia also temporarily suspended Max 8 aircraft flying to and from Australia. The country's Civil Aviation Safety Authority said while no Australian airlines operate the jet, two foreign airlines -- Singapore-based SilkAir and Fiji Airways -- fly the aircraft to Australia, and will be affected by the suspension.

In South Korea, budget carrier Eastar Jet said it would temporarily ground its two Max 8s from Wednesday, Reuters reported. An airline spokesman said the move was to cooperate with the government's required emergency safety inspections.

The groundings followed similar decisions by China, Mongolia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Elsewhere in the world, the U.K. on Tuesday broke with the U.S. in issuing a ban on Max 8 aircraft flying over U.K. airspace. The European Union followed with a suspension of all flights in the bloc by the 737 Max.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reiterated on Tuesday that it would not ground Boeing 737 Max planes at this time, despite the global trend. 

The regulator's acting administrator Dan Elwell said a review by the body "shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft."

U.S. President Donald Trump, however, took to Twitter to express his suspicion toward computer-driven air flight in a series of tweets on Tuesday morning.

"Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly," the president said. "Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT."

Noting that old and simple methods are often better, Trump said, "Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don't know about you, but I don't want Albert Einstein to be my pilot."

Calls to idle Boeing aircraft in the U.S. are coming from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. "All Boeing 737 Max 8s should be grounded until American travelers can be assured that these planes are safe," Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal tweeted Monday.

"Out of an abundance of caution for the flying public, the @FAANews should ground the 737 MAX 8 until we investigate the causes of recent crashes and ensure the plane's airworthiness," Republican Senator Mitt Romney wrote on Twitter Tuesday.

Chinese authorities were the first to suspend Max 8 flights Monday, even before Ethiopia issued the same order that day. Eight Chinese nationals were killed in the Ethiopia crash. Five out of 355 Chinese flights using the narrow-bodied jet were either canceled or switched to other aircraft, according to the flight tracking app VariFlight.

Sunday's crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302, which killed all 157 people on board, came five months after the same model aircraft plunged into sea off Indonesia. The Lion Air flight in October, which killed 189 people, shared striking similarities to the crash in Ethiopia.

"It is unusual for countries and airlines uninvolved in an accident to suspend flights," said Hiroyuki Kobayashi, a former Japan Airlines pilot. "It indicates distrust."

Boeing has a backlog of more than 4,600 737 Max, accounting for approximately 80% of backlog orders. The fuel-efficient 170-seater, of which 350 have gone into operation, has been a go-to model for budget carriers since the debut in 2017.

The fallout from the crash has dealt a heavy blow to Boeing's ambitions to win out against Airbus's A320neo family of narrow-body aircraft. At the end of last year, Boeing opened up a 737 Max completion and delivery center outside of Shanghai for the purpose of catching up to Airbus's Chinese production. Now China has grounded the planes, with the decision likely colored by frictions with the U.S.

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