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(Reuters) — The European Union’s aviation safety regulator on Tuesday suspended all flights in the bloc by Boeing 737 MAX planes in the biggest setback yet for the U.S. plane-maker following a crash in Ethiopia that killed 157 people.
The move came after Britain, Germany and France joined a wave of suspensions of the aircraft in the wake of Sunday’s crash, and was swiftly followed by a similar decision by India, piling pressure on the United States to follow suit.
Boeing, the world’s biggest plane-maker, which has seen billions of dollars wiped off its market value, said it understood the countries’ actions but retained “full confidence” in the 737 MAX and had safety as its priority.
It also said the U.S.’s Federal Aviation Authority had not demanded any further action related to 737 MAX operations.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the head of a U.S. Senate panel that oversees aviation issues, said on Tuesday that he plans to hold hearings on the fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets since October, and suggested it would be “prudent" to temporarily ground the planes.
The cause of Sunday’s crash, which followed another disaster with a 737 MAX five months ago in Indonesia that killed 189 people, remains unknown.
There is no evidence yet whether the two crashes are linked.
In an unusual move, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said it was suspending all flights in the bloc of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 and 9 jets.
“Based on all available information, EASA considers that further actions may be necessary to ensure the continued airworthiness of the two affected models,” it said in a statement.
However, it shied away from the even rarer step of pulling the safety certification for the plane itself, focusing instead on the softer process of restricting its use by airlines. The move leaves some leeway for the FAA to decide its own approach.
The decision by some states to ban not only arrivals and departures but flights crossing through their airspace surprised some regulatory sources even in regions banning the plane, since overflights are usually protected by international law.
Victims from 30 nations
Earlier, countries including Singapore, Australia and Malaysia also temporarily suspended the aircraft, following China, Indonesia and others the day before.
Experts say it is too early to speculate on the reason for the crash. Most are caused by a unique chain of human and technical factors.
Given problems of identification at the charred disaster site, Ethiopian Airlines said it would take at least five days to start handing remains to families.
The victims came from more than 30 different nations, and included nearly two dozen U.N. staff.
“We are Muslim and have to bury our deceased immediately,” Noordin Mohamed, a 27-year-old Kenyan businessman whose brother and mother died, told Reuters.
“Losing a brother and mother in the same day and not having their bodies to bury is very painful,” he said in the Kenyan capital Nairobi where the plane had been due.
Flight ET 302 came down in a field soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa on Sunday, creating a fireball in a crater. It may take weeks or months to identify all the victims, who include a prize-winning author, a soccer official and a team of humanitarian workers.
The United States has said it remains safe to fly the planes. Still, two U.S. senators urged the FAA to implement a temporary grounding.
President Donald Trump also fretted over modern airplane design.
“Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT,” Trump tweeted, lamenting that product developers always sought to go an unnecessary step further when “old and simpler” was superior.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!” he added.
He did not refer to Boeing or recent accidents, but his comments echoed an automation debate that partially lies at the center of a probe into October’s Lion Air crash. Investigators are examining the role of a software system designed to push the plane down, alongside airline training and repair standards.
Boeing says it plans to update the software in coming weeks.
President Trump spoke to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg on Tuesday, a source familiar with the matter said.
U.S. Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called on the FAA to temporarily ground the 737 MAX.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also on Tuesday asked American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines to voluntarily ground all Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 planes.
Anxiety was also evident among some travelers, who rushed to find out from social media and travel agents whether they were booked to fly on 737 MAX planes.
If the black box recordings found at the Ethiopian crash site are undamaged, the cause of the crash could be identified quickly, although it typically takes a year for a full probe.
The new variant of the 737, the world’s most-sold modern passenger aircraft, is viewed as the likely workhorse for global airlines for decades and another 4,661 are on order.
Over 40% of the MAX fleet has been grounded, Flightglobal said, though many airlines still use older jets.
Still, major customers including top airlines from North America kept flying the 737 MAX. Southwest Airlines Co, which operates the largest fleet of 737 MAX 8s, said it remained confident in the safety of all its Boeing planes.
Boeing shares fell another 7% on Tuesday after having lost 5% on Monday.
Former FAA accident investigator Mike Daniel said the decision by regulators to ground the planes was premature. “To me it’s almost surreal how quickly some of the regulators are just grounding the aircraft without any factual information yet as a result of the investigation,” he told Reuters.
In Nairobi, the U.N. Environment Program set up a small memorial for Victor Tsang, a staff member who lost his life.
“Travel well my friend, see you on the other side,” said one entry in a condolence book beside a framed photograph, bouquet of flowers and candle. By midafternoon, 23 pages of the condolence book had been filled with over 250 names.
(Reuters) — Boeing Co.’s insurers face big claims from families of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, coming less than six months after the crash of the same type of Boeing aircraft in Indonesia, insurance and aviation sources said.