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Widening scrutiny after the two recent Boeing 737 Max crashes could mean more blowback on the White House and federal agencies.
To start, President Donald Trump has left the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the government agency that oversees air travel, without a permanent head for more than a year — during the time of both crashes, which claimed a total of 356 lives. A former Boeing executive, Patrick Shanahan, also sits on Trump’s Cabinet as the acting secretary of defense. On Wednesday, the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General opened up a probe into allegations that Shanahan tried to boost Boeing’s contracts with the U.S. government. Although unrelated to the crashes, the investigation could shed light on just how much influence Boeing has within the administration.
“There are lots of reasons to be concerned about Trump’s ability to protect the public and the flying public,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and expert in government ethics.
Aside from creating headaches for Trump personally, the two crashes — an Ethiopian Airlines flight on March 10 and a Lion Air flight in October — have put the FAA’s reputation as a worldwide leader of aviation safety at risk. One sign of that came Wednesday, when Canada and Europe announced they planned to conduct their own reviews of software updates to the 737 Max 8, the Boeing model involved in both crashes, instead of relying solely on the FAA’s certifications. The move signals a lack of trust in the U.S. agency’s ability to oversee safety features and comes alongside reports that top FAA officials didn’t know about changes to the planes’ systems.
That same day, the FBI joined the U.S. Transportation Administration’s investigation into how Boeing certified the 737 Max 8 in the first place.
With a market cap near $212 billion, Boeing’s not only one of the largest manufacturers in the U.S. but also one of the biggest government contractors. It's got an army of lobbyists in D.C., spending millions advocating for its interests each year. In 2018, the planemaker dropped $15.1 million, according to Fox Business. In February of this year alone, Boeing spent $827,000 on political donations — the most it’s ever spent in a single month, according to the Daily Beast.
Problems for the White House
For about a year, the Federal Aviation Administration agency went without a permanent head after Trump reportedly wanted to appoint John Dunkin, his personal pilot at the Trump Organization, to the position.
That left the agency with a temporary leader during the two massive crashes involving the Boeing 737 Max 8, which resulted in dozens of countries pulling the plane from the sky. The U.S., however, lagged behind for days and insisted the plane was safe. Additionally, a software fix Boeing was working with the FAA to implement was reportedly stunted during the longest government shutdown in history over funding for Trump’s border wall.
Trump finally announced on Tuesday that he would nominate Steve Dickson, a former executive at Delta Air Lines, to lead the FAA. If confirmed by the Senate to the five-year position, Dickson, also a former F-15 fighter pilot, faces a tough job.
Meanwhile, former Deputy Defense Secretary Shanahan, who had a decades-long career with Boeing, took over the Department of Defense after Jim Mattis resigned in December.
In January, Politico reported Shanahan had disparaged Boeing’s competitor, Lockheed Martin, and once urged the Pentagon toward new Boeing jets the Air Force didn’t want. Under an ethics agreement Shanahan signed when he took the job, he’s supposed to recuse himself from matters related to Boeing.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon’s inspector general opened up a probe into Shanahan’s actions, which the Cabinet member said he supports.
“Boeing has a very strong demonstrated interest in governing policy and contracting, and it seeks to exert this influence over government,” said Corey Goldstone, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center. “They have a huge lobbying presence.”
Questioning the FAA’s reputation
As the U.S. investigates the certification process for the 737 Max 8, other countries might also start to reassess the level of trust they’ve put into the FAA, considered the world’s leader in aircraft safety.
After the March 10 crash in Ethiopia, which killed 157 people, the Ethiopian Transport Ministry recovered black box data showing the crash was similar in some ways to another Boeing crash, months earlier in Indonesia, that killed another 189 people; pilots in both cases reported flight control issues relating to the plane’s newly installed automated stall-prevention program. U.S. regulators have yet to reach the same conclusion but decided to wait on a software update until they allow the planes to fly again.
Transport Canada, which has accepted the U.S.’s certification approvals outright in the past, announced its intent Wednesday to do its own certification of Boeing’s upcoming software fix, regardless of what the FAA determines. Europe’s aircraft regulatory agency also announced taking a closer look to the software fix.
U.S. flight officials delegated oversight of certain safety assessments regarding that automated program to Boeing during the plane’s 2015 certification process, which resulted in flaws in understanding the strength of the automation software, The Seattle Times reported. The software prevent the model’s engine from tipping the plane’s nose too high, but certain circumstances can push the nose down suddenly and with force.
Because Boeing took over parts of those safety assessments and didn’t flag significant problems, top FAA officials didn’t know about that software system, anonymous sources told the New York Times.
Cover image: President Donald Trump listens during a briefing on drug trafficking at the southern border in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Washington. Trump said during the event the U.S. is issuing an emergency order grounding all Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft "effective immediately," in the wake of the crash of an Ethiopian Airliner that killed 157 people. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)