Pressure mounts on FAA as more countries ground or ban the Boeing 737 MAX 8
As more countries and airlines around the world grounded the Boeing 737 MAX 8 or banned the plane from their airspace Tuesday, pressure was growing on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take similar action in the United States.
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Added to that pressure was uncertainty over how — and how soon — critical questions might be answered about what might have caused Sunday’s crash of the Ethiopiann Airlines 737 MAX 8 that killed 157 people just six minutes after takeoff.
It was still unclear Tuesday how Ethiopia was handling retrieval of data from the “black boxes” recovered from the wreckage — the flight data and cockpit voice recorders — including whether it might try to have its own investigators handle the task or ask for international help from the U.S. or other countries with more sophisticated labs.
Because of the uncertainty, the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which often works in tandem with the FAA, announced Tuesday that it was banning the 737 MAX 8 from its airspace.
“The UK Civil Aviation Authority has been closely monitoring the situation, however, as we do not currently have sufficient information from the flight data recorder we have, as a precautionary measure, issued instructions to stop any commercial passenger flights from any operator arriving, departing or overflying UK airspace,” a statement said.
“The UK Civil Aviation Authority’s safety directive will be in place until further notice. We remain in close contact with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and industry regulators globally,” the statement continued.
A key question is whether the plane’s advanced flight management system — the autopilot — might have played a role in the most recent crash– as it did in the fatal crash of an Indonesian Airlines 737 MAX 8 last October when it appears the pilots failed to disengage the autopilot when the plane began pitching violently, perhaps because they were unaware of how to do so.
Both planes experienced similar problems right after takeoff.
President Donald Trump weighed in Tuesday, tweeting that today’s jetliners were getting dangerously complex — that “I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot” — and that pilots must be able to “easily and quickly take control of a plane.”
Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2019
….needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2019
In the face of the growing international pressure, Boeing put out an updated statement Tuesday.
“Safety is Boeing’s number one priority and we have full confidence in the safety of the MAX,” the statement said. “We understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets. We’ll continue to engage with all of them to ensure they have the information they need to confidently operate their fleets or return them to service.
“It is also important to note that the Federal Aviation Administration is not mandating any further action at this time, and based on the information currently available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators,” the Boeing statement said.
But while Boeing, the FAA and U.S. carriers that operate 72 of the 737 Max 8 planes — Southwest, American and United — were standing by the safety of the aircraft, political pressure was rising in Washington.
“Dozens of Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes fly daily in the United States. The United Kingdom, China, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and others have already grounded the 737 MAX. The FAA should follow their lead, reverse their decision, and immediately ground this plane in the United States until its safety can be assured,” Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for president, said in a statement Tuesday.
Warren called for hearings on “on whether an Administration that famously refused to stand up to Saudi Arabia to protect Boeing arms sales has once again put lives at risk for the same reason.”
“Until the cause of the crash is known and it’s clear that similar risks aren’t present in the domestic fleet, I believe all Boeing 737 Max 8 series aircraft operating in the United States should be temporarily grounded,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, wrote in a letter to the FAA Monday.
Several countries have already taken “this important step,” Feinstein said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, echoed Feinstein’s call.
“All Boeing 737 Max 8s should be grounded until American travels can be assured that these planes are safe,” Blumenthal tweeted.
House Transportation and Infrastructure committee chairman Peter DeFazio stopped short of asking the FAA to ground the 737 Max 8 aircraft, but said he questioned whether it was “wise” to encourage people to put the planes back in the air until they have the data, which he said would be over the next few days.
“The FAA is there as a regulator,” DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, told reporters on Capitol Hill Monday.
“If they have the slightest inkling that this is, you know, an ongoing problem with this plane, they should order them down,” he said. “But they assure me that they have run a myriad of tests … which I’m not qualified to parse through at this point — and they feel the plane is sound.”
Meanwhile, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, a union that represents flight attendants who work for American Airlines, said they would not force any employees they represent to fly on the aircraft.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents United employees, said crew and passengers “are expressing concern about the 737 Max 8.”
“It is vitally important that U.S. airlines work with Boeing, the FAA, and the NTSB to address concerns and take steps to ensure confidence for the traveling public and working crews,” said President Sara Nelson.
About one-third of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets around the world were grounded as of Tuesday morning.
On Monday, Ethiopian Airlines, the flag carrier of the East African nation, grounded its remaining Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft “until further notice.” Also on Monday, China grounded its 96 jets and Indonesia temporarily grounded its Boeing 737 MAX 8 fleet as well. The United Kingdom joined the growing list and grounded its five jets on Tuesday morning.
Singapore has indefinitely banned all Boeing 737 MAX aircraft from flying into and out of the country, as has Australia, Malaysia and Oman. None of the countries fly the model themselves.
Airlines in other countries also have announced the grounding of Boeing 737 MAX 8 fleets, including Cayman Airways, South Africa-based airline Comair, Aeromexico, Aerolineas Argentinas, Brazil’s largest airline Gol, Morocco’s national carrier Royal Air Maroc and South Korean airline Eastar Jet.