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Safe Because We Said So

a WestJet Boeing 737 MAX 8 in flight, seen from below.
photo by Liam Allport

President Donald Trump is no aviation safety expert, and neither am I, but both of us were far ahead of North America’s regulators in responding to obviously justified concerns about the airworthiness of Boeing’s 737 MAX jetliners.

I ordered a no-MAX policy in our firm in November, a few weeks after a 737 MAX 8 crashed shortly after takeoff in Indonesia, killing everyone aboard. I acted after it became known that a new and unadvertised feature of the aircraft’s software likely pushed the plane into a dive when faulty sensor readings indicated a nonexistent stall. The pilots fought to control the plane before it crashed 11 minutes into the flight.

I was prepared to lift my no-MAX policy after Boeing implemented software and training fixes. The software fix was initially planned for January; now it has been postponed until sometime in April. That may not have been soon enough.

Last weekend, another 737 MAX plunged to the ground six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Although there is no way to know the cause of the disaster until investigators have a chance to do their work, the circumstances were so similar to the Indonesian tragedy that the safety of the aircraft was immediately suspect. Yet Boeing said as recently as Tuesday that it had “full confidence” in the MAX 8.

By Wednesday afternoon, Boeing was practically the only one. Regulators around the world began grounding the MAX 8 and MAX 9 aircraft as early as Monday morning. By Tuesday, the planes had been banned from the skies almost everywhere they regularly fly except the United States and Canada.

Yet while Canada dragged its feet longer than most of the rest of the world after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, its transport minister announced yesterday that Canada would ground all MAX aircraft and ban them from its airspace until further notice.

That briefly left U.S. regulators practically alone in the world in still permitting the MAX aircraft to fly. Before the Federal Aviation Administration could come to its senses, as Canadian regulators eventually did, Trump intervened – and only then did FAA officials and Boeing grudgingly fall into line, doing what obviously needed to be done.

I fear that at this point it is too late to avoid lasting damage to North America’s reputation as an aviation safety leader. Underscoring this concern, Ethiopian officials announced yesterday that the flight recorders recovered from this week’s crash will be sent to France for analysis, rather than to the United States. They don’t have confidence in American authorities, and I don’t blame them.

Prior to Trump’s order, the FAA had said not enough data was available from the crash in Ethiopia and the earlier disaster in Indonesia to conclude that the two are related. Here’s some data: Two nearly new, ultra-modern aircraft fell out of the sky almost as soon as they climbed into it, and the FAA does not know why that happened. This certainly does not prove a fault of the aircraft – although we know enough about the first disaster to be confident the aircraft’s flight control systems were a major factor – but the facts are far from ruling out aircraft faults, either.

The burden of proof is supposed to be on the aircraft’s makers and operators to show that the machines they fly meet modern safety standards. Jets that meet those modern standards do not just plunge nose-down to earth shortly after takeoff. Due to the uncertainty about the aircraft’s safety, it should have been promptly grounded after the Ethiopian disaster, if not earlier. Federal records show that at least five U.S. pilots complained about problems controlling the MAX 8 in the months following the October crash in Indonesia.

The sequence of events ought to be obvious. You suspect a problem. You confirm and isolate that problem. You address the problem. Then, and only then, you declare the problem fixed.

The FAA had it entirely wrong. To them, the aircraft was still safe because they had previously declared it safe. In a statement on Tuesday, the agency said its “review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” In their view, the MAX 8 could not be considered unsafe until they had clear and convincing proof that they were wrong the first time – and planes dropping from the heavens evidently don’t meet that standard in the FAA’s eyes.

The FAA approach to aviation safety was similar to video review in major league sports: You need conclusive proof before the call on the field is overturned. And the FAA’s call on the field was that the MAX 8 is safe to fly. Despite calls from foreign regulators, flight attendants’ unions and domestic lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the FAA seemed determined to stick to that initial call until the president got involved.

Transportation officials in Washington and Ottawa were wearing blinders this week, just as they have been at Boeing headquarters in Chicago, in acknowledging the likelihood that issues with the aircraft played a role in these disasters.

No glory goes to the carriers who continued to insist their crews and customers have no reason to worry about flying the MAX – or that they should swallow their concerns and fly anyway, while they were permitted to do so. Southwest, which has the largest MAX 8 fleet in the U.S. and flies mainly domestically, is the biggest disappointment. The airline, which is already drawing unrelated criticism from the FAA due in part to an ongoing labor dispute with mechanics, has at least 31 of the aircraft. American Airlines has 22 and also continued to fly them in airspace where permitted until they were ordered to stop.

Canadian carriers don’t have much more to brag about. Air Canada and Canadian carrier WestJet continued to fly the aircraft north of the border and to U.S. destinations, with the FAA’s blessing, until Canadian regulators intervened. Only Toronto-based Sunwing Airlines grounded its small MAX fleet before the government stepped in, citing “evolving commercial reasons.” In other words, passengers wouldn’t get into the darn things. Some international destinations would not have let them land anyway.

I view the carriers’ continued use of the aircraft as indicative of a risk-tolerant safety culture that should have been entirely squeezed out of commercial aviation by now. If, heaven forbid, a third MAX 8 would have had an accident before the causes of the first two crashes were identified and addressed, I don’t know how any executives at these airlines, or at the FAA or at Boeing, would ever again get to sleep at night.

The planes can be fixed, if necessary. Once they are, I expect the MAX series will have a long and safe service life, like other modern aircraft. Repairing North America’s reputation for world-class flight safety will not be as easy.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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