Flowers lie at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 11 2019. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI
Flowers lie at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 11 2019. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI

JSE-listed airline Comair on Monday relented to public pressure and decided to stop using its Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft after the fatal weekend crash in Ethiopia, the second involving the model in less than five months.

The South African airline, which operates the British Airways brand locally, said it had taken the decision even though it remained confident about the "inherent safety" of the plane. It had decided temporarily not to schedule the aircraft, while it consulted other operators, Boeing and technical experts.

"The safety and confidence of our customers and crew is always our priority," Wrenelle Stander, executive director of Comair’s airline division, said in a statement on Monday.

The decision came as potential Comair customers, along with travellers around the globe, took to social media to express concern about the safety of the planes. While investigators have yet to make a link between the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed all 157 passengers and crew, and an accident that led to 189 deaths in Jakarta in October 2018, carriers in China, the Cayman Islands and Indonesia decided to ground the aircraft. Ethiopia had grounded the aircraft after the crash.

Comair, which took delivery of its first Max 8 in February, making it the first airline in Southern Africa to do so, said initially it would monitor investigations and was in close contact with Boeing and the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).

It has ordered eight other planes, with the next delivery due in March and the last one in 2022. Comair also runs kulula.com, which, together with BA, flies to 11 destinations in SA, Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean.

SACAA confirmed that there were two Max 8s on the SA aircraft register belonging to one operator, one of which was in operation.

"SACAA is monitoring the situation and will not hesitate to take any preventative measures, but these will be based on facts and not speculation. This is in the spirit of preserving the integrity of our air trans-port safety and security system," said spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba.

The accidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia have given rise to concerns about possible faults in the aircraft type.

Transport minister Blade Nzimande said in a statement that a local task team comprising of all relevant state entities and agencies would collaborate with their Ethiopian counterparts "to offer any necessary assistance and skills needed to ensure the speedy conclusion of the investigation into this crash".

The Guardian reported on Monday that Ethiopian Airlines had joined carriers in China and the Cayman Islands in suspending the use of Boeing 737 Max 8 jets after Sunday’s crash.

The report said that China’s aviation authorities had ordered the country’s airlines to ground their Boeing 737 Max 8s in view of the fact that the two air crashes were of newly delivered aircraft and had "certain similarities".

They said this decision was "in line with our principle of zero tolerance for safety hazards and strict control of safety risks".

The Indonesian director-general of Air Transport Polana Pramesti, said on Monday that inspections on the country’s 11 Max 8 jets would start on Tuesday.

The plane would remain grounded until safety regulators had cleared it.

Boeing shares opened about 12% lower on Monday which, if maintained, would have put them on track for the biggest drop since the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001, the Financial Times reports.

The company said the investigation of the Ethiopian Airlines crash was in its early stages, and there was no need to issue new guidance to operators of its 737 Max 8 aircraft based on the information it has so far.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za

An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 passenger jet to Nairobi crashed early on Sunday March 10 2019, killing all 149 passengers. Here is what we know so far.