The latest disaster involving the aircraft came on Sunday, when an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 crashed shortly after taking off from Addis Ababa en route to Nairobi, killing 157 people.
The same model of aircraft flown by Indonesian carrier Lion Air went down shortly after taking from Jakarta in October, crashing into the Java Sea and killing 189 people.
Australia joins a growing list of countries that have grounded the newest variant of Boeing’s long-standing and best selling single-aisle workhorse, which only entered service in 2017.
China, Ethiopia and Indonesia have all grounded the jet, while several airlines such as AeroMexico, Royal Air Maroc, Cayman Airways and South Africa’s Comair have chosen to pull it from service.
But the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday gave the MAX a green light to keep flying, saying it was too early to know if there were any similarities between the two crashes.
Due to the high cost of testing and certifying new aircraft, it is common for aviation authorities like CASA to defer to safety checks completed by their American or European counterparts.
CASA had said earlier on Tuesday that it would be guided by the FAA’s investigation into the crashes.
The FAA on Tuesday did order Boeing to implement a number of design changes to the new anti-stall computer system installed on the MAX, which was identified as contributing to the Lion Crash. It will require pilots to undergo more training, including in a flight simulator, before they can operate the new jet.
Virgin Australia has 40 MAX aircraft on order, and said it was “closely watching the situation”, flagging it could change its order depending on the outcome of the investigations.
“With our first aircraft delivery not due until November this year, we believe there is sufficient time to consider the outcome of the investigation and make an assessment,” a Virgin spokeswoman said.
Virgin’s incoming CEO Paul Scurrah will take the controls of Australia’s second-largest airline from John Borghetti on March 25, and was already expected to take a hard look at whether Virgin could afford the MAX order after the airline has run up a string of heavy losses over the past decade.
Fiji Airways had earlier said in a statement that it had “full confidence in the airworthiness of our fleet”.
“Our Boeing 737 pilots and cabin crew receive extensive ground and simulator training, over and above the mandatory training set for the MAX 8 by the manufacturer,” the airline said.
Fiji Airways had flights between Fiji and Australia using the 737 MAX scheduled for Tuesday morning.
In the wake of the Lion Air crash, investigators focused on the new anti-stall system installed on the MAX that forces the plane’s nose down if it detects it is flying at too steep an angle, and whether that function was triggered by incorrect information being fed into the system.
Some pilots were not aware of that new function, but Boeing has said that all pilots know how to override the jet’s automatic functions, whether they knew about the new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) or not.
The MAX is the latest variant of Boeing’s best-selling 737, which has become the single-aisle workhorse for airlines’ short-haul operations around the globe over the past 51 years.
There are 387 of the MAX aircraft in operation today, being flown by 59 airlines, with another 5000-plus of the aircraft on order.
One of the MAX’s key selling points was that it was an easy replacement for airlines that already had 737-trained pilots, who would need only two or three hours of computer-based training before they could operate the new jet.
John Lyons, president of the Virgin Independent Pilots Association, said the union had the “utmost confidence” in the airline’s rigorous training.
“We look forward to its introduction at Virgin Australia as it brings outstanding commercial advantages to the airline and enhanced customer appeal,” he said.