President Trump finally announced this afternoon that the US will ground the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9. Earlier today, Canada had joined the European Union, China, Australia, New Zealand and other major countries in barring the Boeing 737 MAX 8 from its airspace, citing satellite data confirming similar vertical trajectories of the crashes of the plane in Indonesia last October and in Ethiopia last Sunday in which a total of almost 350 people died.
This is an abrupt change for the Trump administration. Just last night, the Acting Administrator of the FAA, Daniel K. Elwell, had doubled down on keeping the Boeing 737 MAX 8 in the air, stating that his agency’s extensive review of “aggregate safety performance from operators and pilots of the Boeing 737 MAX… shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, after a call with President Trump, had also declared his complete faith in the plane’s safety.
The FAA’s Failures In Disclosure
Trust in a crisis depends on truth-telling—something the current administration is not renowned for, with almost 10,000 false or misleading statements from the president alone.
In this case, the FAA statement last night did not disclose that five pilots had already raised serious concerns about the 737 MAX 8 in the federal database where pilots can voluntarily report about aviation incidents without fear of repercussions.
Instead, the FAA statement said, “Other nations’ civil-aviation authorities had not provided data to us that would warrant action.” Yet Elwell didn’t have to look to foreign civil aviation authorities for such evidence. There was such evidence, right here at home, as reported in the Dallas Morning News.
The FAA statement also did not disclose that Boeing had already issued an emergency airworthiness directive about the Boeing 737 Max 8 in response to the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia. The directive “was prompted by analysis performed by the manufacturer showing that if an erroneously high single angle of attack (AOA) sensor input is received by the flight control system, there is a potential for repeated nose-down trim commands of the horizontal stabilizer.”
Nor did the FAA statement disclose that Boeing and the FAA had been working together for some months to deal with the possibility that the Indonesia crash was caused by a malfunction of its stabilization system. The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was included on the 737 Max 8 model as a mechanism to enhance safety. The idea was that the MCAS would automatically correct for a plane entering a stall pattern as a result of the nose pointing too far upward. The MCAS has a sensor that detects this condition and automatically pushes the nose down.
The problem? If the sensor didn’t work properly then the MCAS might keep pushing the nose downwards, thereby causing the very thing it was intended to avoid. The situation might have been rectified if the crew had de-activated the MCAS system. Instead, it appears possible that the crew tried to correct the angle of attack using the manual controls and were eventually defeated by the MCAS system and the plane crashed.
Nor did the FAA statement indicate that as a result of a five-week delay caused by the partial government shutdown in December and January, the software fix now won’t be available until the end of April—still some six weeks away. In the meantime, the FAA and the U.S. airlines decided as recently as last night to keep the planes in the air, despite the risks.
The Consequence—The Ethiopia Crash
Now following the death of 189 people in the crash in Indonesia, the crash in Ethiopia has killed another 157 people—deaths that might have been avoided if Boeing and the FAA had been more open and had gotten the software fix out sooner. And the FAA’s complacent attitude to the safety of the 737 MAX 8s might have continued in the U.S. if the massive international reaction made that strategy impracticable.
In explaining the failure of the U.S. to ground the MAX 8, White House officials were reported to have said that “grounding the fleet could have widespread financial effects and cause unnecessary fear.” The question is whether “financial effects” should be put in the same equation as public safety.
A former FAA official told the Washington Post that those effects are already being felt, regardless of what the United States does. “Effectively, it’s grounded anyway,” the former official said. “If all these countries won’t let these planes in, who [cares] what the U.S. allows?”
Calls had already come in from U.S. Senators across the political spectrum to ground the plane.
Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also called for grounding the plan. “The US should ground Boeing 737 Max jets until they are deemed safe. You can’t compromise safety… Take the plane out of service until the flying public has a 100 percent assurance that these planes are safe. And they don’t have that assurance today.”
In the end, with Canada’s grounding of the aircraft, the White House bowed to the international pressure and grounded all of the 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 planes in the U.S.
The Corrosive Impact Of Politics And Finance
Flying is inherently dangerous but as a result of many decades of rigorous attention to safety, commercial airlines have become amazingly safe. Back in the 1920s, there were many commercial aviation crashes—24 total in 1926 and 1927, 16 in 1928 and 51 in 1929. By contrast, for the last 9 years, there have been zero crashes on large scheduled commercial airlines in the U.S.
This success story is the result of a strict and objective approach to understanding the evidence of issues and rectifying them. Politics and finance have been kept out of the picture. Safety has been the overriding priority, taking precedence over considerations of finance and politics. Until now, the United States has been in the lead in establishing this record of success. But in the absence of a permanent Administrator of the FAA, there is a risk that this extraordinary record of success will be jeopardized.
Boeing, through its political action committee, has funneled millions of dollars into the campaign accounts of lawmakers from both political parties. A list of a year’s worth of political spending on Boeing’s website stretches on for 14 pages, listing campaign contributions to lawmakers ranging from a city councilman in South Carolina to Representative Nancy Pelosi of California.
For decades, the F.A.A. has used a network of outside experts, known as F.A.A. designees, to certify that aircraft meet safety standards. In 2005, the regulator shifted its approach for how it delegated authority outside the agency, creating a new program through which aircraft manufacturers like Boeing could choose their own employees to be the designees and help certify their planes.
The program is intended to help the F.A.A. stretch its limited resources, while also benefiting plane makers who are eager to avoid delays in the certification process.
The regulator maintains offices inside Boeing’s factories, including those in Renton, Wash., and in Charleston, S.C. “I’ve raised this concern in the past, about people who go to work at the Boeing plant who work for the F.A.A.,” said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and the chairman of the House transportation committee. “How much scrutiny are they applying, and could they be influenced?
The Future of Aviation Safety
While it is reassuring the U.S. has finally taken action to ground the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9, the sequence of events points to institutional issues in aviation safety generally. As a minimum, a permanent administrator of the FAA needs to be nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate.
But Congress may also need to examine whether the relationship between the Boeing and the FAA has become too close to be healthy. On a day on which a federal judge reminded the country that “facts still matter,” steps may need to be taken to ensure that airline safety is not politicized.
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