The Federal Aviation Administration is facing growing criticism for backing the airworthiness of Boeing's 737 Max jetliners as the number of countries that have grounded them grows in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash over the weekend, according to CBS News.
Curiously, this is a reversal of the conventional process where the rest of the world typically takes it cues from the FAA, long considered the world's gold standard for aircraft safety. Yet aviation safety regulators in dozens of other nations have decided not to wait for the FAA to act and have grounded the planes or banned them from their airspace. In addition, at least 10 airlines worldwide have stopped flying them.
Three days after an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed, killing all 157 people on board, just months following a deadly crash in October of another new Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Lion Air in the sea off Indonesia, country after country ignored assessments by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that the plane is safe to fly. Canada agreed it was too early to act but many fell into line in growing numbers behind the first major nation to ground its 737 Max fleet - China.
In doing so, long-time American allies including the U.K. and Australia broke convention by snubbing an authority that has defined what’s airworthy for decades. New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam on Wednesday became the latest countries to block the 737 Max, helping legitimize China’s early verdict on March 11 that the plane could be unsafe.
"The FAA’s credibility is being tested," Chad Ohlandt, a Rand Corp. senior engineer in Washington told Bloomberg. "The Chinese want their regulatory agency to be considered a similar gold standard.”
As we reported yesterday, the EU's Aviation Safety Agency, which covers 32 countries, announced Tuesday it was banning the planes from flying in its airspace. Other countries that have either grounded or temporarily banned them include China, the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Oman, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia and the UAE.
One day after the Ethiopian Airlines flight plunged to the ground, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) drew a possible connection between the crash and Lion Air’s in October. A preliminary report into the earlier disaster, which killed 189 passengers and crew, indicated pilots struggled to maintain control following an equipment malfunction. Both flights, on almost brand new planes, ended minutes after takeoff.
The CAAC asked domestic airlines to ground their 737 Max 8 fleets. "There needs to be reason for us to change that decision," said CAAC’s deputy head Li Jian. Domestic carriers including China Southern Airlines Co. and Air China Ltd. account for about 20 percent of 737 Max deliveries worldwide through January, according to Boeing’s website.
According to Bloomberg, Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told CNN that the latest crash and the Lion Air tragedy had substantial similarities. Separately, the Wall Street Journal reported that Ethiopia wanted to send the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders to the U.K., causing U.S. investigators to hold intense behind-the-scenes talks to bring the parts to America.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that he's concerned that international aviation regulators are providing more certainty to the flying public than the FAA.
"In the coming days, it is absolutely critical that we get answers as to what caused the devastating crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and whether there is any connection to what caused the Lion Air accident just five months ago," DeFazio said.
Already several U.S. lawmakers have called for the Max jets to be grounded, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mitt Romney of Utah and Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Dianne Feinstein of California, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Bob Menendez of New Jersey. So have Democratic Reps. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Adriano Espaillat of New York and Shelia Jackson Lee of Texas.
Meanwhile, both the Association of Flight Attendants and the American Airlines flight attendants' union are urging the grounding of Max 8s, yet the FAA continues to ignore their pleas.
In a striking development, on Tuesday it emerged that pilots on at least two flights of U.S. carriers have reported that an automated system seemed to cause their Boeing planes to tilt down suddenly, the same problem suspected of contributing to the crash off Indonesia. The pilots said that soon after engaging the autopilot on Boeing 737 Max 8s, the nose tilted down sharply. In both cases, they recovered quickly after disconnecting the autopilot.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines operate the 737 Max 8, and United Airlines flies a slightly larger version, the Max 9. All three carriers vouched for the safety of Max aircraft on Wednesday.
The pilot reports were filed last year in a data base compiled by NASA. They are voluntary safety reports and do not publicly reveal the names of pilots, the airlines or the location of the incidents. It was unclear whether the accounts led to any actions by the FAA or the pilots' airlines.
However, leading the push against US grounding, a vice president of American, the world's biggest carrier, which has 24 Max 8s, said it has "full confidence in the aircraft." At the same time, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association president Captain Jonathan L. Weaks put out a lengthy statement saying, "The data supports Southwest's continued confidence in the airworthiness and safety of the MAX. … We fully support Southwest Airlines' decision to continue flying the MAX and the FAA's findings to date. I will continue to put my family, friends, and loved ones on any Southwest flight and the main reason is you, the Pilots of SWAPA."
A United pilot echoed that sentiment, telling CBS News, "It's a safe airplane. I'd put my family on it."
Boeing has said it has no reason to pull the popular aircraft from the skies and it doesn't intend to issue new recommendations about the aircraft to customers. Boeing's CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke with President Trump and reiterated that the 737 Max 8 is safe, the company said. Its technical team, meanwhile, joined American, Israeli, Kenyan and other aviation experts in the investigation led by Ethiopian authorities.
The FAA said it was reviewing all available data. It said it expects Boeing will soon complete software improvements to the automated anti-stall system suspected of contributing to the Lion Air crash.
"Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft," acting FAA Administrator Daniel K. Elwell said in a statement. "Nor have other civil aviation authorities provided data to us that would warrant action."
The FAA's cavalier response has prompted accusations of "cozying" up to the industry, with Bill McGee, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports, saying the FAA has increasingly become cozy with airplane manufacturers and airlines when it should be more pro-active in safety. The magazine and website on Tuesday called on airlines and the FAA to ground the 737 Max planes until an investigation into the cause of the Ethiopian crash is completed to see if it's related to the Lion Air crash in October.
"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.," McGee said.
"Increasingly, the FAA is relying more and more on what the industry calls electronic surveillance," added McGee, who has written about aviation for nearly two decades. "Not going out and kicking the tires, seeing the work being done, making sure it's being done properly."
Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also called for the U.S. to ground the 737 Max, just as his agency halted flights of Boeing 787s six years ago because of overheating lithium-ion battery packs. "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."
But veteran accident investigators defended the FAA, which has said there's no data to link the two crashes.
"I don't see the facts to justify what they've done," John Goglia, an independent safety consultant and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said of the moves by other countries to stop the Max 8 from flying. "If they have facts, I wish they would share them with the rest of the world so we can protect the air-traveling public."
The FAA said it was reviewing all available data, and so far had found no basis to ground the planes.
John Cox, president and CEO of the aviation consultancy Safety Operating Systems, said countries that have grounded the Max 8 may have linked the Ethiopian and Indonesian crashes even though investigators had yet to analyze the Ethiopian plane's black boxes.
"The FAA is on solid ground so far," said Cox, a former airline pilot and accident investigator. "But politics may overwhelm them if enough members get together and demand the planes be grounded."
Sandy Morris, an aerospace analyst at Jefferies in London, called the string of bans on the Boeing Max jets unprecedented.
"It seems like a rebellion against the FAA," Morris said.