The domino effect that led to the international grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max passenger jets this week defied 70-year-old conventions of aviation.
China was the first country to ground the jets on Monday, about 24 hours after Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 from Addis Ababa to Nairobi crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 157 people on board.
That decision rippled around the world as safety regulators in country after country followed suit, until finally, on Wednesday, the US Federal Aviation Administration — isolated among major countries — took action, having spent days defending the safety of the aircraft.
“Groundings of an entire fleet of aircraft are extremely rare and the way this one played out was back to front,” said John Strickland of JLS Consulting and a former senior airline executive.
The domestic regulator responsible for certifying an aircraft type should be the one leading the world in a flying ban, according to a framework of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialised UN agency that traces its roots back to 1944.
In the case of the Boeing 737 Max, that is the FAA. This time, however, it was the last to act, in a development that some aviation officials see as a radical change in how one of the most highly regulated industries responds to crises.
One driver of change is the rise of social media. When Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared in March 2014, myriad conspiracy theories, amplified by social media, led to extraordinary scenes in China, which had lost 153 nationals among the 239 people on board. Hundreds of desperate relatives gathered outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing to voice their anger and took their protest to Kuala Lumpur.
As a result, the pressure the Chinese authorities put on Malaysia was intense as were the extraordinary resources devoted to trying to find the aircraft.
“This is a level of influence on governments that we hadn’t seen before,” said Andrew Blackie, a former British air accident investigator and qualified commercial pilot who spent 10 years at the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch and now trains new inspectors through his consultancy Abris.
International co-operation has far from broken down, however. The same safety regime has ensured dozens of highly trained specialists from countries including the UK, the US and France are now engaged in the painstaking process of establishing the cause of the crash.
As part of the crash probe, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder of the ill-fated Ethiopian aircraft have arrived at a specialist laboratory in France, considered among the best in the world, where work on retrieving the data started on Friday.
The first pictures of the data recorder released by the French air accident investigation branch showed it to be badly damaged.
But Mr Blackie said external damage to the container itself can sometimes be misleading as it is designed to withstand huge forces. “Retrieval of the data, if it is in good condition, can take several hours” he explained, but it could take weeks if there is internal damage.