U.S. flight attendants and ground crews urged their airlines to take their Boeing 737 Max airplanes out of service after other carriers around the world suspended the jets following a fatal crash in Ethiopia over the weekend, the workers' unions said Tuesday.
Aviation regulators in Europe on Tuesday joined officials in China, Singapore and Indonesia and airlines from Mexico to South Africa in temporarily suspending the planes' use in the wake of the crash — the second of one of the fastest-selling Boeing jets in less than five months.
American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines — the three U.S. airlines that have the 737 Max planes in their fleets — on Tuesday told CNBC that they still have confidence in the aircraft and their crews. The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday said it saw no reason to ground the plane, a decision it reiterated a day later.
Boeing expressed confidence in its top-selling plane, for which it has outstanding orders of more than 4,500 worldwide, and said "based on the information currently available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators."
Still, travelers have fretted about the aircraft's safety record and asked airlines to change flights to avoid it. American said it has not lifted its ticket-change fees, which can cost $200 or more, for travelers who want to avoid the Boeing 737 Max.
Southwest has 34 Boeing 737 Max 8 planes in its fleet and said it would "waive fare differences that might normally apply" for travelers who wish to "rebook their flight to another aircraft type," spokesman Dan Landson told CNBC. The planes represent a small number of Southwest's fleet of more than 750 Boeing 737s — mostly older models than the Max. United's customer service agents were working with travelers to change their flights on a case-by-case basis but tried to reassure passengers that the aircraft is safe.
The issue is straining relations between the airlines and their largest employee groups, some of which are in the middle of contract negotiations.
"Our Flight Attendants are very concerned with the recent Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crash, which has raised safety concerns with the 737 MAX 8," said Lori Bassani, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American's roughly 27,000 flight attendants. "Many respected global carriers are grounding the planes. We are calling on our CEO Doug Parker to strongly consider grounding these planes until a thorough investigation can be performed."
American stood by the planes and its crew members, and said it is contact with federal aviation regulators.
"We continue to believe the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft is safe and that our pilots are well-trained and well-equipped to operate it," it said in a statement. "We are keen to learn any findings from the Cockpit Voice Recorder and Flight Data Recorder, which will provide a better understanding of the cause of this recent accident."
The Transport Workers Union of America, which represents Southwest's more than 15,000 flight attendants and 13,400 ramp and other workers, wrote to the airline's CEO, Gary Kelly, asking him to take the Boeing 737 Max planes out of service "until the results of the investigation into the voice and data recorders is completed and the cause of the catastrophe is determined."
The union, which also represents most of American's mechanics, sent a similar note to American Airlines' CEO.
Investigators have recovered the two black boxes from the crash site, which should provide information about what brought down Nairobi, Kenya-bound Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. That Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed in a rural area outside of Addis Ababa shortly after takeoff, killing all 157 passengers and crew, less than five months after the crash of a Lion Air plane in Indonesia. On Oct. 29, Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea minutes into its flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing the 189 people on board.
Bassani said the union told flight attendants that they don't have to work on a plane they don't feel comfortable flying on.
American's pilots' union said it contacted company executives about the group's "critical safety concerns" after the crash.
"It is important for you to know that if you feel it is unsafe to work the 737 Max, you will not be forced to fly it," the Allied Pilots Association told its members Tuesday.
There are more than 370 Boeing 737 Max planes flying worldwide, 74 within the United States, the FAA said.
The pilots of the doomed Lion Air plane appeared to be battling an automated anti-stall system that isn't on older models of the 737, which ended up repeatedly pushing the nose of the plane down, investigators have indicated. Boeing said on Monday that it is developing software fixes as well as updating training procedures and manuals — moves that the FAA expects to mandate no later than April.
While the cause of either crash has not been determined, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents some 50,000 flight attendants, including United's, urged the FAA to ground the planes as a precaution.
"The United States has the safest aviation system in the world, but Americans are looking for leadership in this time of uncertainty," Sara Nelson, AFA's international president, said in a statement.
"The FAA's April deadline for updates is insufficient considering the legitimate fear and uncertainty following two deadly accidents involving this aircraft," Nelson added. "The FAA must restore public confidence by grounding the 737 Max until the required changes have been implemented and the public can be fully assured."
The FAA on Tuesday reiterated its decision not to ground the planes, saying its review "shows no systemic performance issues" to warrant the planes be taken out of service.