It's too early to draw conclusions about any similarities between the two crashes, officials and safety experts say
The Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed shortly after takeoff on Sunday, killing all 157 people aboard, is the same make and model as the plane that crashed off Indonesia last year with 189 deaths, but officials and safety experts warned against rushing to link the incidents.
Officials lost contact with Flight 302, a Boeing 737 Max 8 jetliner flying from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, at 8:44 a.m. (1:44 a.m. ET), authorities said.
That was about six minutes after the plane took off from Bole International Airport, they said. Tewolde GebreMariam, the airline's chief executive, said that the captain reported "difficulties" and asked to return to the airport but that then the plane "was lost from the radar — it disappeared."
The Ethiopian Airlines jet had been in service for only four months and had no known technical issues, GebreMariam said.
In late October, Lion Air Flight JT610 — also a Boeing 737 Max 8, which had been in service for only 2½ months — crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.
Indonesian authorities said that contact with Flight JT610 was lost after 13 minutes and that the captain reported a "flight control problem." Pilots flying the same plane a day earlier had experienced a similar problem, authorities said.
Weather was good the days of both crashes.
Beyond that, it's inappropriate to draw any comparisons so early in the investigation of Sunday's crash, said Capt. John Cox, an aviation safety management specialist at the University of Southern California who is an aviation analyst for NBC News.
"The Lion Air jet had been experiencing mechanical problems for the four days prior to the accident," said Cox, a former executive air safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association International. "Everything we have heard so far is that is not true of the Ethiopian plane."
GebreMariam said the pilot, senior Capt. Yared Getachew, had an excellent record with more than 8,000 hours of flight time.
"It is a brand new airplane with no technical remarks, flown by a senior pilot, and there is no cause that we can attribute at this time," he said at a news conference, adding: "We cannot rule out anything."
Likewise, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations said it "stresses the need to avoid speculation as to what happened to the aircraft."
The 737 Max 8 is Boeing's successor to the 737-800, one of the workhorses of civil aviation; it has been in commercial service for only 22 months, since the first one was flown by Malindo Air, a subsidiary of Lion Air, in May 2017.
Ethiopian Airlines is well-respected in aviation circles, having been accepted into the Star Alliance — which includes Air Canada, Lufthansa and United Airlines — in 2011.
Should the crashes turn out to have stemmed from similar problems, it would have been despite the efforts of Boeing Co. and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA.
In a preliminary report in November, KNKT, Indonesia's transportation safety commission, said the Lion Air jet wasn't airworthy on either of its last two flights.
The commission highlighted the airline's maintenance practices and pilot training, as well as a revised Boeing safety system designed to automatically correct the jet's flight path if data from sensors indicated that the plane was stalling or losing lift.
U.S. pilots and Indonesian investigators said at the time that information about the automated system wasn't covered in the aircraft's flight manual. Boeing responded by issuing a bulletin to make sure airlines trained their pilots in how to shut off the system if it engaged in error.
The FAA likewise ordered all U.S. airlines that use 737 Max aircraft to obey the bulletin.
Boeing and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board are sending teams to Ethiopia to assist with the new investigation, and Cox said that because of the interest in the crash, "we'll know fairly quickly" what happened.
"It's all in the data-gathering mode at this point," he said. "Everybody wants to know what happened, but it's too early in the process to provide an answer to that question.
"It's more important to be accurate than to be quick," he said.