The FAA Versus the Rest

In a dramatic statement from the White House on Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump announced an “emergency order& to ground all Boeing 737 Max 8 and the& 737 Max 9, and planes associated& with that line.”

The FAA and Boeing agree. “We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution. Safety is a core value at Boeing for as long as we have been building airplanes; and it always will be,” Dennis Muilenburg, president of Boeing, said.

Boeing would have had no choice except to comply. However, shortly after the president spoke, the FAA gave further reason for the action: “new evidence collected at the site and analyzed today…added fidelity — missing pieces that we did not have prior to today.”&

Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell would not give an estimate of how long the planes would be out of operation.

Some 30 Boeing 737 Max planes that were in the air over the United States at the time President Trump made the announcement were grounded as soon as they reached their destinations.

It is hard to know what was behind the difference of opinion concerning the grounding of the 737 Max airliners between the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the air safety authorities in many other countries.

Following the disastrous crashes of two such planes within months of one another — one operated by Lion Air in Indonesia and a few days ago a disturbingly similar one involving Ethiopian Airlines — the FAA initially refused to ground the planes, even temporarily, until the cause of the accidents could be determined. This, while regulators in more than 40 countries — including the European Union, China, Australia and the United Kingdom — acted almost immediately to suspend the 737 Max until they feel satisfied that it is safe to fly.

From a rational point of view, the FAA may have been right to wait. Agency officials said they have been reviewing all available data (U.S. experts joined the investigation in Addis Ababa), and until Wednesday found no basis to ground the planes.

To be sure, a ruling that the planes should not fly is a serious one, which costs the airlines, airports and manufacturers a good deal of money, and could damage their reputation for safety and integrity.

However, the FAA’s statement that no data had been found to initially justify a grounding seems almost beside the point. The investigations in Ethiopia are ongoing; everyone agreed that the facts are not all in. The question was, whether it would be prudent to suspend a plane which has been involved in unexplained crashes that have taken hundreds of lives. The rest of the world chose to risk erring on the side of a safety precaution, whereas the FAA saw no reason for it.

But what is at stake is not only the airworthiness of the 737 Max — a technical matter for the experts to determine — but public confidence in the safety of commercial flights and the judgment of the regulators responsible for them.

During these days, the public sentiment that it would be better for the FAA to risk erring on the side of passenger safety has been mounting.

Consumer Reports on Tuesday called for grounding the 737 Max planes until the crash investigation is over.

“They have not presented any evidence that the problems that we’ve seen with these two crashes are not problems that could potentially exist here in the U.S.,” said Bill McGee, the magazine’s aviation adviser.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who halted flights of another Boeing plane six years ago because of safety concerns, agreed.

“These planes need to be inspected before people get on them,” LaHood said Tuesday. “The flying public expects somebody in the government to look after safety, and that’s DOT’s responsibility.”

The issue galvanized opinion in both major parties. Ted Cruz, a Republican senator who chairs a subcommittee on aviation and space, said: “I believe it would be prudent for the U.S. likewise to temporarily ground 737 Max aircraft until the FAA confirms the safety of these aircraft and their passengers.”

Democratic senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal have also written to the FAA urging that this model be grounded “until the agency can conclusively determine that the aircraft can be operated safely.”

McGee suggested an explanation for the FAA’s unusual behavior: that it has become increasingly cozy with the airplane industry when it should be more focused on safety.

“Increasingly the FAA is relying more and more on what the industry calls electronic surveillance,” added McGee. “Not going out and kicking the tires, seeing the work being done, making sure it’s being done properly.”

It should be unthinkable that the FAA would refuse to take necessary precautions out of a bias in favor of the industry. Rather, it would seem that agency officials were simply trying to be fair and hard-headed and avoid jumping to conclusions that would benefit no one.

The fact of the matter is, there exists no definite technical trigger for grounding a plane. Ultimately, it’s a judgment call, albeit based on a thorough evaluation of the facts. That would explain the split between the FAA and others. It’s not a question of what the facts are, but of what the facts mean, and about what to do while the facts are not fully available.

It should be kept in mind that the FAA has a record of overseeing aviation safety that has for decades set the standard for the rest of the world. Public confidence has been well earned, and nothing has happened in this case to change that.