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Korean Air, T’way to ground Boeing 737 Max 8 over safety concerns

South Korea’s full-service flagship carrier Korean Air and budget airline T’way joined a growing list of airlines Wednesday in grounding Boeing 737 Max 8 planes after an Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed and killed 157 people Sunday.

The fatal crash came just five months after another plane crash involving the same model took place in Indonesia. Lion Air’s 737 Max plunged into the ocean under similar circumstances, killing 189 people.

Boeing 737 Max 8 (Yonhap)
Boeing 737 Max 8 (Yonhap)

On Thursday, Korean Air announced it would suspend the introduction of Boeing 737 Max 8 jets that was slated for a May delivery. 

“We decided not to operate B737 Max 8 planes until the aircrafts’ safety is perfectly secured,” Korean Air said in a statement. 

In 2015, Korean Air signed a contract with the US aerospace giant to purchase 30 Boeing 737 Max 8 jets and optionally buy 20 more by 2025. Six Boeing 737 Max 8 planes were planned for delivery and to begin operation in May. 

Besides Korean Air, budget airlines Jeju Air, Eastar Jet and T’way were to receive new Boeing 737 Max 8 planes by 2027 -- 56 planes, 18 and 10, respectively -- through contracts with Boeing. 

T’way said it would also bar its operation of the Boeing 737 Max 8 until safety issues are cleared. 

Boeing’s new Max 8 model has been embraced by airlines for fuel efficiency and suitability for short- and medium-haul flights.

Eastar Jet, the only carrier here that currently operates Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, banned the operation of two Boeing 737 Max 8 jets on Tuesday, but the company voiced concerns over expected losses. 

“Although the decision (to ground its two Boeing 737 Max 8) was a pre-emptive measure for passengers’ safety, we expect to bear the cost for the lease and operating losses,” an official from Eastar Jet said. 

With the absence of the two jets, the company will run its 35 flight routes with 18 remaining planes. The company said its original plan to introduce four more Boeing 737 Max 8 jets will be decided once the Transport Ministry announces its investigation results. 

But industry insiders said contract cancellation for aircraft delivery is less likely, unless a major reason for the Ethiopian plane crash is found with the aircraft. 

“As the investigation is still underway, it is too early to cancel the contract. (Finding out) reasons why the aircraft crashed could take months. Plus, a cancellation charge for breaching the contract is quite immense. It is not like how we purchase smartphones or other commodities,” an industry insider related to the matter told The Korea Herald. 

According to the flight industry, each airline will see at least 3 billion won ($2.6 million) in losses per month by not being able to run the Boeing 737 Max 8 on their flight routes. One Boeing 737 Max 8 jet costs around 150 billion won. If introduced, the operation of the jet could create some 30 billion won in sales annually. 

Meanwhile, the country’s No. 2 flagship carrier Asiana Airlines has been mainly running Airbus’ midsized A350 model. By 2025, the company plans to purchase 30 more A350s and the new A321-neo to expand its mid- and long-distance routes.

By Kim Da-sol (