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Here's why the U.S. waited to ground the Boeing planes

Some experts suggest that the FAA’s close links to the airline industry make it look like the delay was politically influenced.

by David Gilbert
Mar 14 2019, 8:57pm

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has come under increasing pressure from lawmakers, pilots and aviation experts to explain why it delayed grounding Boeing’s 737 Max 8 aircraft after the jet was involved in a second crash in less than six months.

The FAA on Wednesday made the decision to ground the planes, only after dozens of other countries already had. The agency’s acting director, Daniel Elwell, said they didn't have the kind of data that would warrant a grounding prior to that.

"We're a data-driven organization," Elwell told NPR in a Thursday interview. "If a link is not made, you don't have a common thread; there is not a need for grounding. So once we got the data, that made that relatively clear."

The data Elwell is referring to is the aircraft’s configuration just after takeoff as well as more granular, satellite-based tracking data.

Despite criticism about the delay at home, international experts say that the FAA was right to wait for hard evidence before grounding the flights, though they warned that the agency’s close links to the airline industry make it look like the delay was politically influenced.

Boeing, based in Everett, Washington, has close links to the Trump administration. Elwell himself used to work for Boeing's trade association, acting defense secretary Patrik Shanahan was a longtime Boeing executive, and the company gave $1 million to Donald Trump’s inaugural fund.

“The FAA was in a difficult position because as the lead for the airworthiness of the Max, they would perceive a duty not to produce a catastrophic business decision without the evidence to do it,” Dai Whittingham, chief executive of the U.K. Flight Safety Committee, told VICE News.

The FAA is not only responsible for regulating airlines and making sure safety standards are maintained, some think it still has a mandate to promote the industry.

At a time when China is threatening to disrupt the almost complete dominance of the commercial aviation market by Boeing and Airbus, following a series of mergers and acquisitions in recent years, questions will be asked about where the FAA’s priorities lie.

The FAA says it has a responsibility for airline and passenger safety and nothing else and that it never took Boeing’s business into account when making the decision to delay grounding the jets.

“The FAA makes safety decisions, period.”

“The FAA does not have that dual role,” Elwell told NPR, saying the agency’s promotion of the industry stopped 30 years ago. “The FAA makes safety decisions, period.”

But many experts and former FAA officials said that this is not the case, claiming that the agency works to promote the U.S. aviation industry and this causes problems for how the agency acts.

"There is obviously a type of colliding objectives here: On the one side, they are responsible for the safety, on the other side for promoting the industry,” Jan Hagen, a professor at ESMT Berlin business school and author of a book on how the aviation industry deals with errors, told VICE News.

Panic response

Within hours of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 crashing on Sunday morning, killing all 157 people on board, Chinese regulators grounded all Boeing 737 Max 8 jets. Regulators in Europe, Asia, and Australia acted much quicker in order to safeguard their citizens.

But these actions appeared to be caused more by public “panic” than based on any available evidence.

“The public was jumping very quickly to the conclusion [that the planes were unsafe] and there was mounting pressure to do something, although we really don't have any positive data right now,” Hagen said.

The Ethiopian investigators leading the probe into the crash announced Wednesday they were sending the black box to the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses, France’s aviation regulator, where it will be decoded and hopefully provide more information about what caused the crash.

So far experts have focused on the 737 Max 8’s automated control system known as “maneuvering characteristics augmentation system” (MCAS), which was designed to counteract the tendency of the plane’s larger engines to tip the plane’s nose upward.

Pilots have complained about the lack of training they’ve received on the new jet, introduced two years ago. The 737 Max is Boeing’s replacement for the old 737, and when it was introduced, the company convinced the FAA that there was no need to have a different rating for this particular variance of the aircraft.

The reason Boeing pushed for this rating, Whittingham says, is so that airlines would not have to go through rigorous and expensive pilot retraining. Pilots are not required to go through simulator training on the new aircraft but have to do what is known as "differences training," which amounts to a few hours of computer-based training.

Assessing airworthiness

Throughout the early part of this week, the FAA maintained that the 737 Max 8 was “airworthy” and it had seen no evidence to change that view. That all changed on Wednesday when they said they were grounding all flights after seeing ”new evidence collected at the site and analyzed today.”

The FAA said evidence points to “some similarities" between the Ethiopian and Indonesian disasters that “warrant further investigation of the possibility of a shared cause that needs to be better understood and addressed.”

Despite the mounting pressure, the FAA’s decision would not have been taken lightly, as “grounding” is a distinct airworthiness term, and doing so means the FAA will now have to provide proof it is airworthy again.

“Once you ground an aircraft because of a problem, you then have to find the evidence to unground it,” Whittingham said.

While the FAA maintains it made its decision purely on the evidence available, many others believe that political pressure or a desire to protect itself guided the decision to delay grounding the flight.

“My fear is that the FAA is simply trying to save face and avoid acknowledging the safety defect that they failed to find when they certified the plane’s safety,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Tuesday.

The suggestion that the FAA had bowed to political pressure was fueled in part by the Boeing CEO’s call to Trump on Tuesday to reportedly lobby on behalf of his airline, while U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her entire staff flew on a 737 Max 8 to show their support for the beleaguered airline.

But regulators in other countries didn’t have to bow to political pressure, as they didn’t have any skin in the game.

“The similarities [between the crashes] were enough evidence to convince some regulators, particularly where there were no political implications for them,” Whittingham said.

Cover: Five Boeing 737 Max jets are grounded at Sky Harbor International Airport, Thursday, March 14, 2019 in Phoenix. The U.S. issued an immediate emergency order Wednesday, grounding all 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft in the wake of the crash of an Ethiopian Airliner. (AP Photo/Matt York)

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