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US says 'no basis' to ground 737 MAX jets

But Boeing has been told to make changes to flight systems, pilot training procedures

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Widening actions around the world against the 737 MAX is putting pressure on Boeing to prove that the plane is safe.

Washington

THE United States said there is "no basis" to ground Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, after a second deadly crash involving the model in less than five months prompted governments worldwide to ban the aircraft.

Despite the aviation giant's assurances that the plane is safe and reliable, the European Union, Britain and India joined China and other countries grounding the plane or banning it from their airspace as they await the results of the investigation into the crash.

But the US has so far refused to take similar action against the American aerospace giant's bestselling workhorse aircraft.

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"Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft," Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Daniel Elwell said in a statement on Tuesday.

A new Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 went down minutes into a flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi on Sunday, killing all 157 people on board.

That followed the October crash of a new Lion Air jet of the same model in Indonesia, which killed 189 people shortly after takeoff from Jakarta.

The widening actions against the aircraft puts pressure on Boeing - the world's biggest plane manufacturer - to prove that the MAX planes are safe, and the company has said it is rolling out flight software updates by April that could address issues with a faulty sensor.

The full extent of the impact of the aircraft bans on international travel routes was unclear. There are about 350 MAX 8 planes currently in service around the world.

Air Canada, for example, announced it was cancelling flights to London following Britain's decision to ban the aircraft.

The EU aviation safety agency also closed European airspace to all MAX planes. It noted that the "exact causes" of the Lion Air crash were still being investigated. "At this early stage of the related investigation, it cannot be excluded that similar causes may have contributed to both events," the agency added.

India joined the list of countries to ban the jet, a day after saying it had imposed additional interim safety requirements for ground engineers and crew for the aircraft.

New Zealand has also temporarily banned the aircraft from its airspace.

Turkish Airlines, one of the largest carriers in the world, said it was suspending use of its 12 MAX aircraft from Wednesday, until "uncertainty" was clarified.

Low-cost airline Norwegian Air Shuttle, South Korea's Eastar Jet and South Africa's Comair also said they would halt flights.

US President Donald Trump weighed in with a blistering tweet on Tuesday: "Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly." "Pilot are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT," he wrote, referring to the prestigious university.

Mr Trump later spoke by telephone to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who assured him the aircraft is safe, an industry source told AFP.

US carriers have so far appeared to maintain confidence in Boeing, which has been ordered by the FAA to make changes to flight systems and pilot training procedures.

The move was not enough to reassure the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which said it was banning the planes from UK airspace "as a precautionary measure". Global air travel hub Singapore, as well as Australia, Malaysia and Oman, were among the other countries to ban all MAX planes from their airspace.

Vietnam joined them on Wednesday, the country's civil aviation authority said. There are currently no 737 MAX planes in operation by Vietnam carriers, though budget carrier Vietjet has ordered 200 of the model and was expected to receive initial deliveries in the first quarter of this year.

China, a hugely important market for Boeing, has ordered domestic airlines to suspend operations of the plane.

Thomas Anthony, head of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California, said increasing automation of planes means crews have less experience flying manually. "So it's not just a mechanical, it is not just a software problem, but it is a problem of communication and trust," he said.

The plane involved in Sunday's crash was less than four months old, with Ethiopian Airlines saying it was delivered on Nov 15. AFP