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Indonesia’s Garuda Airlines cancels order for 49 Boeing 737 Max jets

FILE – In this April 28, 2017, file photo, Garuda Indonesia planes are parked on the apron at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia. Indonesia’s flag carrier is seeking the cancellation of a multibillion-dollar order for 49 Boeing 737 Max 8 jets, citing a loss of confidence in the model following two crashes in the space of a few months. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)

By Timothy McLaughlin and Stanley Widianto
The Washington Post

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia’s national airline Garuda Indonesia is moving to cancel an order for 49 Boeing 737 Max 8 jets following the deadly crashes involving two of the aircraft, a spokesman for the company said Friday.

The decision comes less than two weeks after an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed en route to Nairobi from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people onboard. A flight of Lion Air, a low-cost Indonesian airline, crashed in October shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, killing all 189 passengers and crew.

Both crashes involved the 737 Max 8 model and have brought intense scrutiny to U.S.-based Boeing, which marketed the 737 Max 8 as a fuel-efficient jet of the future, as well as to the Federal Aviation Administration. Garuda Indonesia’s cancellation is believed to be the first scrapping of an order for the plane in reaction to the crashes.

Ikhsan Rosan, a spokesman for Garuda Indonesia, told The Washington Post the decision to cancel the order was because of “consumers’ low confidence” in the airplanes following the crashes. The multibillion-dollar order was first announced in October 2014.

Rosan said airline officials told Boeing of the decision by letter and were scheduled to meet with representatives from Boeing to discuss the matter on March 28. A Boeing spokesman said the company does not comment on discussions with customers.

“The discussion won’t be easy,” he said. Garuda Indonesia ordered 50 of the aircraft, Rosan said, and one has been delivered but was grounded after the Ethiopian Airlines crash earlier this month. Garuda Indonesia has a fleet size of 144 aircraft, according to the company’s website. An additional 58 aircraft are operated by its low-cost carrier, Citilink.

Authorities investigating the October crash of Lion Air flight 610 say erroneous sensor data triggered an automated anti-stall feature, known as the MCAS, in the new Max planes. The glitch kept pushing the plane’s nose down, ultimately causing it to plunge into the Java Sea, investigators found. Divers scoured the waters off the Jakarta coast for the plane’s two “black boxes.” The voice recorder was recovered in January.

The Ethiopian Airlines crash appeared to share similarities with the Lion Air case, including an erratic up-and-down flight path, and the pilot reporting “flight control” problems shortly before crashing, authorities said. Investigators in France and Ethiopia then said information from the Ethiopian flight data recorder showed “clear similarities” with the Lion Air flight.

All Max 8 aircraft have since been grounded, pending the investigation.

On Thursday, investigators in Jakarta confirmed that a third pilot was aboard the same Lion Air plane during a flight on Oct. 28, a day before it crashed. During that flight, the plane experienced similar issues with the MCAS system, but that pilot reportedly disconnected the system.

The issues experienced during the Oct. 28 flight were part of a string of problems with the plane starting Oct. 26, including the four flights before the one that crashed, according to the preliminary report on incident.

While the Indonesian flight’s safety record was initially scrutinized in the immediate aftermath of the Lion Air crash, focus has now shifted to Boeing and the FAA. The U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General and Justice Department are looking into the Boeing 737 Max.

Boeing is also facing a growing number of lawsuits over the crashes. Two lawsuits were filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in addition to multiple lawsuits filed last year.

The lawsuits brought Wednesday allege that the two-month-old aircraft crashed because, “among other things, Boeing defectively designed a new flight control system for the Boeing 737 Max 8 that automatically and erroneously pushes the aircraft’s nose down, and because Boeing failed to warn of the defect.”

Attorney Steve Marks, who is representing the families of 20 Lion Air crash victims, said relatives of people who died were pressured by airline employees to sign agreements shortly after the disaster. The agreements stipulated a payment of 1.3 billion rupiah ($91,600) and barred family members from suing the airline.

A spokesman for Lion Air did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the agreements.

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McLaughlin reported from Hong Kong.