ADDIS ABABA/PARIS – Major European nations Britain, Germany and France joined a wave of suspensions of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on Tuesday following a crash in Ethiopia that killed 157 people.
Suspension by respected European regulators was the worst setback yet for U.S. planemaker Boeing in the wake of Sunday’s crash and put pressure on the United States to follow suit.
In response, the world’s biggest planemaker, which has seen billions of dollars wiped off its market value, said it understood the decisions but retained "full confidence" in the 737 MAX and had safety as its priority.
It also said the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had not demanded any further action related to 737 MAX operations.
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.
October’s Lion Air crash is also unresolved but attention has focused so far on the role of a software system designed to push the plane down as well as airline training and maintenance.
Boeing says it plans to update the software in coming weeks.
There is no evidence yet whether the two crashes are linked.
VICTIMS FROM 30 NATIONS
Elsewhere in Europe, Ireland, Austria and Norwegian Air said they too would temporarily ground MAX 8 passenger jets as a precaution. Earlier, countries including Singapore, Australia and Malaysia also temporarily suspended the aircraft, following China, Indonesia and others the day before.
The European Aviation Safety Agency, which has a major role in overseeing the design of aircraft and monitors some airline operations, was expected to make a statement later on Tuesday.
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, without referring directly to Boeing or recent accidents.
Anxiety was also evident among some travellers, 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.
Boeing said it had been working since the Lion Air crash to enhance flight control software that would be deployed across the 737 MAX fleet in coming weeks.
The MAX 8 has new software that automatically pushes the plane’s nose down if a stall is detected.
The new variant of the 737, the world’s best-selling modern passenger aircraft, was viewed as the likely workhorse for global airlines for decades and another 4,661 are on order.
In Latin America, Gol in Brazil temporarily suspended MAX 8 flights, as did Argentina’s state airline Aerolineas Argentinas and Mexico’s Aeromexico .
In Asia, South Korean budget carrier Eastar Jet said it would temporarily ground its two 737 MAX 8s from Wednesday, while India ordered additional checks.
Still, major airlines from North America to the Middle East 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 percent on Tuesday after having lost 5 percent 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 mid-afternoon, 23 pages of the condolence book had been filled with over 250 names.