FAA under ever-mounting pressure to ground Boeing 737 Max 8s

The Federal Aviation Administration is facing growing criticism for backing the airworthiness of Boeing’s 737 Max jetliners as the number of countries that have grounded them grows in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash over the weekend. The rest of the world typically takes it cues from the FAA, long considered the world’s gold standard for aircraft safety.

Yet aviation safety regulators in dozens of other nations have decided not to wait for the FAA to act and have grounded the planes or banned them from their airspace. In addition, at least 10 airlines worldwide have stopped flying them.

The Ethiopian disaster followed the deadly crash in October of another new Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Lion Air in the sea off Indonesia.

The CEO of Ethiopian Airlines has called for the grounding of all Max 8 jets until it’s established that they’re safe to fly. Tewolde Gebremariam made the call in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation.

He told The Wall Street Journal and CNN the pilot of the doomed flight reported that he was having flight-control problems and wanted to return to the airport. 

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, which covers 32 countries, announced Tuesday it was banning the planes from flying in its airspace. Other countries that have either grounded or temporarily banned them include China, the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Oman, Malaysia, Vietnam and Australia.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that he’s concerned that international aviation regulators are providing more certainty to the flying public than the FAA.

A shot of Boeing’s 737 Max 8 airplanes from the company’s website.  

Eric Greer/Boeing

“In the coming days, it is absolutely critical that we get answers as to what caused the devastating crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and whether there is any connection to what caused the Lion Air accident just five months ago,” DeFazio said.

Several U.S. lawmakers have called for the Max jets to be grounded, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mitt Romney of Utah and Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Dianne Feinstein of California, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Bob Menendez of New Jersey. So have Democratic Reps. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Adriano Espaillat of New York, Shelia Jackson Lee  of Texas and Jimmy Gomez of California.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also called for the U.S. to ground the 737 Max, just as his agency halted flights of Boeing 787s six years ago because of overheating lithium-ion battery packs.

“These planes need to be inspected before people get on them,” LaHood said Tuesday. “The flying public expects somebody in the government to look after safety, and that’s DOT’s responsibility.”

Both the Association of Flight Attendants and the American Airlines flight attendants’ union are urging the grounding of Max 8s.

Prior U.S. airlines’ problems 

It came to light Tuesday that pilots on at least two flights of U.S. carriers have reported that an automated system seemed to cause their Boeing planes to tilt down suddenly, the same problem suspected of contributing to the crash off Indonesia. The pilots said that soon after engaging the autopilot on Boeing 737 Max 8s, the nose tilted down sharply. In both cases, they recovered quickly after disconnecting the autopilot.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines operate the 737 Max 8, and United Airlines flies a slightly larger version, the Max 9. All three carriers vouched for the safety of Max aircraft on Wednesday.

The pilot reports were filed last year in a data base compiled by NASA. They are voluntary safety reports and do not publicly reveal the names of pilots, the airlines or the location of the incidents.

It was unclear whether the accounts led to any actions by the FAA or the pilots’ airlines.

Max 8’s defenders

But a vice president of American, the world’s biggest carrier, which has 24 Max 8s, said it has “full confidence in the aircraft.”

Southwest Airlines Pilots Association president Captain Jonathan L. Weaks put out a lengthy statement saying, “The data supports Southwest’s continued confidence in the airworthiness and safety of the MAX. … We fully support Southwest Airlines’ decision to continue flying the MAX and the FAA’s findings to date. I will continue to put my family, friends, and loved ones on any Southwest flight and the main reason is you, the Pilots of SWAPA.”

A United pilot echoed that sentiment, telling CBS News, “It’s a safe airplane. I’d put my family on it.”

Boeing has said it has no reason to pull the popular aircraft from the skies and it doesn’t intend to issue new recommendations about the aircraft to customers. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke with President Trump and reiterated that the 737 Max 8 is safe, the company said. Its technical team, meanwhile, joined American, Israeli, Kenyan and other aviation experts in the investigation led by Ethiopian authorities.

CBS News senior White House correspondent Major Garrett reports two senior administration officials with direct knowledge say there’s no impetus within the White House to interfere with or second-guess the FAA and seek a grounding of the Max 8s. 

Mr. Trump is opposed to any pressure on the FAA and there’s no sense the planes in the U.S. need to be grounded for safety reasons, Garrett said. The officials added that the White House feels the reputations of Boeing and American aviation are at least partially at stake and acting too son could do more harm than good.

There’s also a sentiment that part of the issue may be linked to less experienced pilots of other airlines and that U.S. pilots have more experience and are better trained to handle any issues with the Max 8s. 

The FAA said it was reviewing all available data. It said it expects Boeing will soon complete software improvements to the automated anti-stall system suspected of contributing to the Lion Air crash.

“Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft,” acting FAA Administrator Daniel K. Elwell said in a statement. “Nor have other civil aviation authorities provided data to us that would warrant action.”

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao flew back to Washington, D.C. from Austin Tuesday on a Southwest Airlines 737 Max 8. Her department includes the FAA.

FAA too close to industry?

Bill McGee, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports, said the FAA has increasingly become cozy with airplane manufacturers and airlines when it should be more pro-active in safety.

The magazine and website on Tuesday called on airlines and the FAA to ground the 737 Max planes until an investigation into the cause of the Ethiopian crash is completed to see if it’s related to the Lion Air crash in October.

“They have not presented any evidence that the problems that we’ve seen with these two crashes are not problems that could potentially exist here in the U.S.,” McGee said.

“Increasingly, the FAA is relying more and more on what the industry calls electronic surveillance,” added McGee, who has written about aviation for nearly two decades. “Not going out and kicking the tires, seeing the work being done, making sure it’s being done properly.”

Rush to Judgment?  

But veteran accident investigators defended the FAA, which has said there’s no data to link the two crashes.

“I don’t see the facts to justify what they’ve done,” John Goglia, an independent safety consultant and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said of the moves by other countries to stop the Max 8 from flying. “If they have facts, I wish they would share them with the rest of the world so we can protect the air-traveling public.”

The FAA said it was reviewing all available data, and so far had found no basis to ground the planes.

John Cox, president and CEO of the aviation consultancy Safety Operating Systems, said countries that have grounded the Max 8 may have linked the Ethiopian and Indonesian crashes even though investigators had yet to analyze the Ethiopian plane’s black boxes.

“The FAA is on solid ground so far,” said Cox, a former airline pilot and accident investigator. “But politics may overwhelm them if enough members get together and demand the planes be grounded.”

Sandy Morris, an aerospace analyst at Jefferies in London, called the string of bans on the Boeing Max jets unprecedented.

“It seems like a rebellion against the FAA,” Morris said.

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