Boeing 737 MAX interior, photo by Flickr user airbus777
I can’t think of any issue that is more intrinsically nonpartisan than the safety of traveling in, or piloting, a commercial jetliner.
So in a way I have to credit Oregon’s Rep. Peter DeFazio and his fellow Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Seven weeks before the November election, they managed to turn their final investigative report on the Boeing 737 MAX disasters into a partisan exercise, leaving the committee’s Republicans muttering and sputtering on the sidelines.
This accomplishment is especially noteworthy because the public has known the basic facts for months. Those facts are not seriously disputed. In its eagerness to meet a competitive threat from Airbus and its A320neo midrange jet, Boeing constrained the designers of the MAX – a derivative of its longtime workhorse 737 series – in ways that led to a pair of catastrophic accidents. The first, of a Lion Air jet departing Jakarta, Indonesia in October 2018, killed 189 people. The second, of an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa in March 2019, cost another 157 lives. The MAX series was grounded worldwide soon thereafter and is awaiting recertification before airlines can fly it again.
In both crashes, investigators found that a faulty sensor prompted a flight control system known as MCAS – which was unique to the 737 MAX – to repeatedly push the aircraft’s nose down during the initial climb, despite pilots’ repeated efforts to level the plane and gain altitude. MCAS was supposed to make the MAX, with its larger engines mounted differently, handle similarly enough to earlier 737 models to allow pilots to fly the new design without undergoing expensive retraining in simulators. This was a key element in Boeing management’s plan to maintain its market share.
Because Boeing is an American company, the Federal Aviation Administration is its primary regulator. The rest of the world followed the FAA’s lead – or it did, until the second MAX disaster. Since then, America’s sterling record on aviation safety has been significantly tarnished, as has Boeing’s. Other countries plan to conduct their own detailed evaluations before they let the MAX fly again in their airspace.
As is customary, the FAA delegated some of its on-site supervisory functions to Boeing employees during the plane’s development and testing. The agency accepted the manufacturer’s assurances that no simulator training was necessary. It approved operating manuals that omitted any detailed instruction about MCAS and how it operates – as well as how to override it in an emergency. Most egregiously, it allowed the plane to continue in service after the Lion Air crash, even though Boeing had not had time to develop and implement a solution. This last decision led directly to the second deadly crash in Ethiopia. It has taken far longer than Boeing initially predicted to develop the fixes needed, both to resolve the MCAS issue and to address other problems that investigators discovered.
Everyone wants commercial air travel to be as safe as we can make it. If you are involved in an accident, it makes no difference how you voted in the last election. The report DeFazio’s committee released yesterday adds some color and detail, but does not change the basic story line. As the report observes, the “investigative findings point to a company culture that is in serious need of a safety reset.” There is universal agreement that in the case of the 737 MAX, the system broke down in multiple places at every stage in the process of placing it in service.
So why did House Democrats issue a report drafted by their own staff with minimal input from their GOP counterparts, and no Republican signers on the committee?
One hint comes from a two-decade-old campaign biography for DeFazio. A Massachusetts native, the committee’s top Democrat observed that in his household, the word “Republican” was usually followed directly by “bastard,” albeit with a quaint New England pronunciation. DeFazio was a progressive Democrat before being progressive was cool. His district includes Oregon’s two main college towns, Eugene and Corvallis. For him, partisanship is part of the package.
But the Democrats’ conclusions about the 737 MAX’s failures incorporate a significant policy difference from their GOP counterparts. Democrats want to sharply curtail, if not end, the FAA’s delegation programs, which the report describes as “excessive.” This would involve the government more deeply and directly in both the design and certification process for new aircraft models. Republicans, led by ranking Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member Sam Graves of Missouri, are more circumspect. They agree that changes are needed. But they have warned against dropping the delegation procedure entirely, despite the potential conflicts of interest. And they have a point.
If we make it too cumbersome to develop and install aircraft improvements in this country, we will eventually drive the work to foreign suppliers. Airbus would be the obvious immediate beneficiary, but China has major ambitions to grow its aviation sector too. I am not at all eager to trust my own safety, or my family’s, or that of my employees and their families, to Beijing’s regulatory oversight. This change would also cost a large number of American jobs. This is a secondary consideration behind safety, but it is still a consideration.
With just weeks to go before lawmakers go home to campaign, the House committee report is best seen as a marker – an indictment of the current system, to be brought before a Senate and White House that might be under Democratic control next year. In place of an agnostic, bipartisan approach, methodically examining what went wrong and developing a consensus to prevent it from happening again, DeFazio and his committee cut the GOP bastards out of the process.
It isn’t easy to make air safety a partisan issue. It also isn’t easy make political hay out of a pair of mass tragedies that arose from procedural breakdowns that occurred under your own party’s prior administration, as well as the opposition’s current one. DeFazio managed to pull it off. Give credit where it is due.