Why the FAA Was the Last to Ground the 737 MAX

On Wednesday afternoon, less than three hours after Canada
became the latest nation to ground the Boeing 737 MAX, the US
government reversed course. Just the night before, the Federal
Aviation Administration had
trumpeted
its confidence in the 737 MAX with the loudest of
announcements: an official statement sent out at 6:15pm, perfectly
timed to lead the evening broadcast news.

When US authorities finally joined the long
list
of nations, agencies, and airlines that had grounded the
Boeing plane, the United States had been left as the last holdout.
President Donald Trump finally
announced
that the Boeing jet was being grounded and banned
from flying through US airspace. 

That was it. The 737 MAX would be effectively grounded
worldwide. With the United States, Canada, the European Union, and
China all shutting down the MAX, all 371 of the planes delivered so
far to airlines had essentially nowhere to go.

And now, the jet will remain out of service for a while: until
the cause of two fatal crashes is found, and a fix rolled out.   
        

The crash Sunday of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 —
the second such incident involving the same aircraft type in less
than five months — presented aviation regulators with an
unenviable dilemma. They could ground the aircraft until it could
be definitively proven that the two accidents were not linked; or
they could allow it to keep flying because no proven link had
emerged yet.

These two schools of thought divided the international aviation
community for days, leading to a situation that looked like the US
versus the rest of the world, until the FAA finally decided to
ground the airplane.

NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - FEBRUARY 17: U.S. President Donald Trump, left, is introduced by BoeingPresident
Donald Trump is introduced by Boeing’s chief executive officer
Dennis Muilenburg during the debut event for the Dreamliner 787-10
at Boeing’s South Carolina facilities on February 17, 2017 in
North Charleston, South Carolina (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty
Images)

Boeing’s chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, had even
called
Trump on Tuesday to argue in favor of his airplane —
one on which his company has riding half a trillion dollars in the
form of 5,000 unfilled orders from airlines all over the world. The
call was unusual enough to raise the specter of impropriety; this
was the boss of a regulated company calling the boss of the
regulator, just after hundreds of people had died in the
company’s best-selling product.

That all changed the next day. Canada had taken a similar view
to the US up to that point — until, at a press conference late
Wednesday morning, Minister of Transport Marc Garneau
announced
that all 737 MAX aircraft would be banned from
operating in Canadian airspace with immediate effect, due to “new
data” that had just emerged.

Pressure was mounting on the US to follow its northern
neighbor’s lead as well as the European Union, China, Australia,
Malaysia, and others, and suspend MAX operations until
investigators have extracted enough information from the cockpit
voice recorder and flight data recorder recovered from the
Ethiopian jet. The investigation either will disprove a link with
the Lion Air MAX 8, which crashed shortly after take-off in
Indonesia in October, or suggest that the two accidents share a
cause.

The investigation into the cause of the Lion Air crash is
ongoing, but one factor under scrutiny is the Maneuvering
Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — a system that was
added to the MAX,  a re-engined version of Boeing’s best-selling
737, to reduce the risk of stalling. The Lion Air pilots were
unaware that the MCAS would automatically push the nose down in
certain situations. The Ethiopian pilots, on the other hand, likely
were aware, though it’s unknown at this point if the system had
activated on their plane.

“To date, there is no distinct link to the Lion Air accident.
However, it was the MCAS system specifically for the MAX that
provoked so much pilot discussion — not least in the USA —
about its seemingly anonymous introduction,” one UK-based
aviation industry source told TPG, on condition of anonymity.
“So, with the possibility that something similar could have
affected [the Ethiopian Airlines flight], the reaction of the
industry, the regulators, and the world at large is possibly not
surprising. In theory, nothing has been established that
scientifically links Lion Air with Ethiopian; however, that could
simply be a function of the lack of time since the [Ethiopian
Airlines] accident.”

The fact that the MAX groundings around the world have happened
before that evidence is available, and the opposing stances of the
FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) -– two
regulators which normally follow similar narratives on safety
issues –- make this an exceptional case. Indeed, EASA admitted it
was suspending all flight operations of the MAX 8 and MAX 9 models
“as a precautionary measure,” even though “it is too early to
draw any conclusions as to the cause of the accident.”

In a similarly worded statement, the UK Civil Aviation
Authority, which grounded the planes before EASA did, said that
“as we do not currently have sufficient information from the
flight data recorder,” it had decided to ban the MAX from its
airspace “as a precautionary measure” and “until further
notice.”

That conflicting narrative from the FAA and other regulators
around the world illustrated the difficulty of making such a
decision in the US, where Boeing, the largest exporter in the
nation, has a clout it does not enjoy overseas.

Workers are pictured next to a Boeing 737 MAX 9 airplane on the tarmac at the Boeing Renton Factory in Renton, Washington on March 12, 2019. - US President Donald Trump on March 13, 2019, announced a plan to ground all Boeing 737 MAX aircraft amid intense international and political pressure following the second deadly crash in less than five months. "WeWorkers
next to a Boeing 737 MAX 9 airplane on the tarmac at the Boeing
Renton Factory in Renton, Washington on March 12, 2019. – (Photo
by Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

But the pressure would eventually prove too much. US senators
had begun weighing in, supporting a grounding. Passengers were

saying loud and clear
that they did not want to fly on the
MAX.

“Regulators face a horrible dilemma. Should the worst happen
– they don’t ground the MAX and there is then another accident
with similar characteristics – utter mayhem would ensue,” said
the anonymous source.

When even Canada moved to ground, the FAA found itself in a
tight spot. Experts had been saying an about-face was coming, in
fact.   

“It is inevitable that [the FAA] will follow suit, partially
because the world of aviation is built upon the principle of trust
in safe operations, ” Diogenis Papiomytis, Global Program
Director of Commercial Aviation at consulting firm Frost &
Sullivan, had predicted a few hours before Trump made his
announcement.

“Although we don’t know if 737 MAX aircraft are unsafe, the
public’s perception is that they are, until proven wrong,” he
said. “It is this perception of safety that is particularly
important for regulators and airlines worldwide; after all aviation
is one of the highest profile consumer markets.”

Grounding aircraft is not a decision taken lightly, given the
huge operational impacts associated with removing entire fleets
from service. European airlines’ frustration could clearly be
felt in a Tweeted video message from the Bjorn Kjos, CEO of
low-cost carrier Norwegian, which is already under significant
financial pressure. Kjos said that while “we hope and expect that
our MAXs will be airborne soon…it is quite obvious that we will
not take the cost related to the new aircraft that we have to park
temporarily. We will send the bill to those who produce this
aircraft.”

If there is no quick resolution to this issue, the bill from
Norwegian will likely be
the least of Boeing’s worries
.

Alberto Riva contributed reporting for this story. 

Featured image of Boeing 737 MAX airplanes on the tarmac at the
Boeing Renton Factory in Renton, Washington on March 12, 2019 by
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

Source: FS – All-Travel destinations-News2
Why the FAA Was the Last to Ground the 737 MAX