Boeing’s 737 Max 8 grounded worldwide
New 737 Max 8s at Boeing’s Washington state plant
President Trump bowed to mounting pressure this week to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 after a second deadly crash in five months killed 157 in Ethiopia and persuaded regulators and carriers worldwide to ban the planes from their airspace. After the Ethiopia disaster, in which at least eight Americans died, the Federal Aviation Administration initially said it found “no systemic” issues with the Max 8 and thus “no basis” for a ban. But the FAA and Trump, who had been personally lobbied by Boeing’s CEO to keep the plane in the air, reversed course after more than 50 nations—including the European Union, Canada, and China—had grounded the plane over concerns that it was difficult to control during takeoff. “The safety of the American people, and all people, is our paramount concern,” Trump said.
Trump’s decision came after Canada’s transportation minister said a review of satellite-tracking data by his country’s experts found similarities between Sunday’s crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet and a Lion Air crash in Indonesia’s Java Sea in October, which killed 189. It was also revealed this week that at least five pilots from U.S. airlines had lodged complaints with the FAA about how the Max 8 performed in flight since October. The Max 8 first flew commercially in 2017, and some 350 are registered, including Southwest Airlines’ 34 and American Airlines’ 24. United Airlines has 14 Max 9s, which were also grounded. Boeing—which has 5,000 Max series planes on order, or two-thirds of its future deliveries—said it agreed with the decision to ground the planes “out of an abundance of caution.”
What the editorials said
Let’s wait for investigators to reach their conclusions before deciding the plane was at fault, said the Chicago Sun-Times. Yes, both crashes exhibit similarities. The Ethiopian crash came just six minutes after takeoff; the Lion Air flight, 12. But there are also differences. Lion Air has been previously cited for improper plane maintenance and pilot training, and some witnesses said they saw smoke coming from the plane before it crashed. And don’t forget that “350 planes of the same model have been flying all around the world for two years without incident.’’ While the jury is still out, said the San Jose Mercury News, the FAA had no real choice but to “err on the side of caution.” People’s lives are at stake. Boeing, meanwhile, sent mixed signals, insisting that the plane is safe but then promising to install new flight-control software on Max 8s. “In other words, there’s nothing wrong with our planes, but we want to fix them anyhow.”
What the columnists said
This disaster is rooted in “a bad business decision” by Boeing, said Jeff Wise in Slate.com. To stay competitive with a new, fuel-efficient Airbus jet, Boeing faced a choice: Design a next-generation 737 from scratch or revise the legacy version—a vastly cheaper option. Boeing chose the latter. But to accommodate better engines, it had “to move the point where the plane attaches to the wing,” resulting in a dangerous tendency for the Max 8 to pitch up and possibly stall. Boeing compensated by added software that pitches the nose down if it senses upward drift. Clearly, the “engineers used automation to paper over the aircraft’s flaws.” These crashes could be the result.
The FAA’s slowness to respond to this crisis is not surprising, said Heather Timmons in Qz.com. The Trump administration is hostile to regulation, and acting officials occupy the FAA’s top three posts, including administrator Dan Elwell, a former American Airlines executive and airline industry lobbyist. Trump just proposed massive cuts to FAA staff. The agency simply “isn’t under optimal conditions to deal with a big issue like two Boeing crashes.”
It’s also worth noting that “Boeing’s influence in Washington is mammoth,” said Melanie Zanona and Brianna Gurciullo in Politico.com. The company has 153,000 workers, and employs 24 in-house lobbyists and nearly 20 lobbying firms. It spent $15 million–plus on D.C. lobbying last year—“more than any other U.S. company except for Google and AT&T.” Oh, and Trump’s new secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, spent 31 years at Boeing and has been reported to lavish praise on the company’s products at meetings and criticize those of its competitors. Does that explain why the U.S. was the last advanced nation in the world to ground the Max 8 and 9?
Cover Illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from AP, Boeing, Reuters