The deadly crash of a Boeing 737-800 in southern China threatens to derail the aircraft maker’s efforts to rebuild confidence in the world’s biggest market after fatal crashes in recent years.
The crash of the China Eastern Airlines flight with 132 people on board is the latest setback for Boeing as it seeks to deliver 140 737 MAX jets built for Chinese customers.
Local search and rescue workers quoted in Chinese state media reported no signs of survivors from the flight, which plunged into a remote mountainous area while en route from the southwestern city of Kunming to Guangzhou.
The 737-800 that crashed on Monday does not have the equipment that led to 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. The model, which has been in service since 1997, is generally known for having a strong safety record. Since launch, 737-800s have been involved in 22 hull-loss accidents that resulted in 612 fatalities, according to data collected by the Aviation Safety Network.
But the aircraft’s history may not make a difference to Chinese passengers and a national regulator known for scrupulous safety requirements.
Chinese state media reported that China Eastern Airlines grounded its entire fleet of 737-800s. China Eastern is the country’s sixth-largest operator of the 737-800, with 89 planes, according to aviation consulting firm IBA. Other Chinese carriers are continuing to fly the jets and China Eastern has not grounded its similar but slightly smaller 737-700s.
China Eastern said the cause of the crash was under investigation. Such accidents typically involve multiple factors, and experts warned it was far too early to draw any conclusions on the potential causes, especially in light of the scarce information available.
“It is hard to speculate on the likely causes of the crash, until the investigation takes place, and we will know more about factual information,” Oleksandra Molloy, a lecturer in aviation safety at the University of New South Wales, told Al Jazeera.
“However, what we know is that the crash happened during the cruise phase of the flight, which is comparatively rare even though this phase accounts for the majority of flight time,” Molloy added, noting that only 13 percent of fatal commercial accidents globally between 2011 and 2020 occurred during the cruise phase. “Usually, the autopilot is engaged during this phase.”
China has made major strides in air safety since a series of fatal crashes in the 1990s and 2000s. Before Monday’s crash, the country had not experienced a fatal accident involving a commercial flight since 2010, when 44 people died in Jilin province.
The North Asia region including China has a lower rate of air accidents than the global average rate, according to International Civil Aviation Organization data.
“China has had a good safety record, certainly in the last 10 to 15 years,” Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, told Al Jazeera. “China’s fleet is relatively modern, with modern Airbus and Boeing aircraft. Modern fleet with good training certainly is a contributor to a good safety record.”
China was the first country to ground the 737 MAX after fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia more than three years ago, and it is the only major market where the MAX has not resumed commercial flights.
A 737 MAX built for China Eastern subsidiary Shanghai Airlines took off from Seattle bound for Boeing’s completion plant in Zhoushan last week, industry sources said, in a sign the model’s return to service in China may be close.
The plane landed in Guam on March 15 as part of a multi-leg journey and has not moved in the week since, according to flight-tracking website FlightRadar24. Boeing declined to comment.
Colin Scarola, senior equity analyst at CFRA Research, said the crash could further delay the return of the MAX in China, where the aviation regulator is known for taking a hard line on safety issues.
China is one of Boeing’s most important markets, with the aircraft maker viewing Chinese carriers as key to driving sales amid flattening demand in Europe and North America.
Chinese airlines are not believed to have any immediate need for MAX planes because demand is down following the country’s biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in two years.
But the US manufacturer has more than 140 MAX jets already built for Chinese customers waiting to be delivered once the jet returns to commercial service there, a person familiar with the matter said.
Boeing’s shares closed 3.6 percent lower on Monday.
Isolating the cause of the crash
There are nearly 1,200 737-800s in service in China, making it the world’s largest market for the plane, according to the International Bureau of Aviation.
There are more than 4,200 737-800s in service worldwide, according to data from aviation firm Cirium.
Chinese fliers could avoid flying on 737-800s until the cause of the crash is determined, given the broader reputational issues with the 737 family caused by the MAX, Cowen analyst Cai von Rumohr said in a note.
“Hence, isolating the cause of the crash will be critical,” he said, noting the leading causes of commercial air transport crashes tend to be maintenance issues, pilot error or sabotage, rather than manufacturing or design issues.
In a memo to employees seen by Reuters, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said the company is in “close communication with our customer and regulatory authorities since the accident, and have offered the full support of our technical experts to the investigation.”
“The investigators will be looking at all aspects of this flight, including any mechanical, or structural issues,” said Shahidi, the Flight Safety Foundation president.
“They will be looking into the maintenance history of the aircraft as well as records of pilot training. Boeing is expected to be part of the process to provide the necessary expertise. Investigators would want to find the flight data recorder and the voice recorder to find out exactly what happened on this flight.”