The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order Wednesday grounding all Boeing 737 Max aircraft in the wake of a crash of an Ethiopian airliner that killed 157 people, a reversal for the U.S. after federal aviation regulators had maintained it had no data to show the jets are unsafe.
Both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, which are headquartered in North Texas, fly the aircraft. Footage from SKY4 showed a Southwest Boeing 737 Max 8 being towed away from a gate at Dallas Love Field after it landed Wednesday afternoon.
The decision came hours after Canada joined some 40 other countries in barring the Max 8 from its airspace, saying satellite tracking data showed possible but unproven similarities between the Ethiopian Airlines crash and a previous crash involving the model five months ago. The U.S., one of the last holdouts, also grounded a larger version of the plane, the Max 9.
Daniel Elwell, acting head of the FAA, said enhanced satellite images and new evidence gathered on the ground led his agency to order the jets out of the air. The data, he said, linked the behavior and flight path of the Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 to data from the crash of a Lion Air jet that plunged into the Java Sea and killed 187 people in October.
"Evidence we found on the ground made it even more likely that the flight path was very close to Lion Air's," Elwell told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
American Airlines has 24 Max 8 planes in its fleet. Southwest Airlines has 34 Max 8 jets.
American said it has “the utmost confidence in our fleet, which is flown by our highly-trained pilots and maintained by our highly-skilled maintenance team.” American said it's working to “make every effort to rebook customers as quickly as possible." Customers will also be allowed to get a full refund.
Southwest Airlines said the Max 8 planes account for less than 5 percent of the airline's daily flights.
“The Safety of our Customers and Employees is our uncompromising priority, and today's action reflects the commitment to supporting the current investigations and regulatory concerns,” Southwest said in a statement.
Southwest said it remains confident in the airliner after completing more than 88,000 flight hours over 41,000 flights, but it supports the FAA's decision. Passengers booked on a cancelled flight can rebook with no penalty or fare increases within the next 14 days.
A number of passengers who were on Flight 1330 from Phoenix to Dallas Love Field on Wednesday were not aware of the FAA directive and had no idea they were flying on one of planes ordered to be grounded immediately.
“I mean I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s a safe thing until they figure out what’s going on with it, because they don’t know,” said passenger Glenn Peck.
Another passenger said she had mixed feelings after the grounding.
“It made me feel safe on one hand, but now it makes me question what is Southwest flying?” said Katie Warpinski.
One woman wondered about the chain reaction of canceled flights because of aircraft being put temporarily out of service.
“I wish I would have known that sooner, I’m from Missouri and I have to be back home tonight and go to work tomorrow,” said Debbi Duley.
President Donald Trump, who announced the grounding, was briefed Wednesday on new developments in the investigation by Elwell and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and they determined the planes should be grounded, the White House said. Trump spoke afterward with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg and Boeing signed on.
“Airlines are agreeing with us,” President Trump said. “The safety of the American people and all people is our paramount concern.”
"At the end of the day, it is a decision that has the full support of the secretary, the president and the FAA as an agency," Elwell said.
Flight attendants also began calling for the ground of the 737 Max. Lori Bassani is with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants which reps American Airlines crews.
“If there is just an inkling or anything at all that we think might not be safe with that plane, then we want to make sure to protect our crews and our passengers and of course the airspace,” Bassani said.
Lyn Montgomery is president of the TWU Local 556, the union that represents 17,000 Southwest flight attendants. It had already negotiated to allow its members not to work on the Max if they didn't feel comfortable.
“I think the company took a serious tone, but it has seemed to take a long time for them to take action,” Montgomery said. “In fact, they're only taking an action because of the governmental order.”
Meanwhile, pilot unions are aligned more with the airlines. They expressed confidence if there was an issue with the 737 Max it was one they could overcome with training.
“If something went awry like it did with Lion Air, we had every bit of information on how to combat that,” said Capt. Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association. “But we understand the regulators’ decision to take a timeout and park the airplane out of an abundance of caution.”
Boeing issued a statement saying it supported the FAA's decision even though it "continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX." The company also said it had itself recommended the suspension of the Max fleet after consultations with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board.
"We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution," Boeing said.
The growing number of countries joining the ban put the FAA in a difficult position, said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the NTSB who is now an aviation consultant. He said the FAA, which certified the 737 Max as airworthy and has been the lead regulatory body for the airplane, prides itself on making data-driven decisions and not based on "anecdotes or political pressures."
Goelz said Trump likely was feeling pressure from Congress and the public to step in.
"There's probably nobody in the administration who's got more of a sensitive ear to cable television," said Goelz.
The FAA is also certain to be looking into anonymous reports from at pilots of at least two U.S. flights who wrote about problems last year in a NASA database, Goelz said.
The pilots reported that an automated system seemed to cause their Boeing 737 Max 8 planes to tilt down suddenly. The pilots said that soon after engaging the autopilot, the nose tilted down sharply. In both cases, they recovered quickly after disconnecting the autopilot.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.