Has the world’s aviation community lost faith in the FAA? Country by country and airline by airline the past 48 hours have seen more than half the global 737 MAX fleet grounded in response to the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 on Sunday. Both Boeing and the FAA say it is still too soon to act; they lack confirmed and compelling data to determine the cause of the crash and any potential remediation efforts. But the world is not willing to wait.
One by one
China was first to act, a strong play given that the country is home to the largest active fleet of the type with 93 flying. Indonesia followed shortly thereafter. That country was already on edge with respect to the type, with the Lion Air crash the first hull loss for the MAX just months ago. Ethiopia joined as well, grounding the remaining four frames in its flag carrier’s fleet.
Individual airlines soon made similar decisions. Cayman Airways was first, with a pair of 737 MAX 8 aircraft taken out of service. It was quickly joined by Comair of South Africa and Royal Air Maroc. Aeromexico, GOL, MIAT Mongolian and Aerolineas Argentinas made similar choices on Monday, some in cooperation with local regulators and some in spite of those regulators.
As the sun rose across Asia Tuesday morning more airlines and countries grounded the planes. Australia, Singapore and South Korea made such moves. Oman did as well. Malaysia has no planes of the type registered but it blocked them from its airspace; it does not want to risk being part of another similar tragedy.
By midday on Tuesday in the USA regulators in Europe were on board, with the UK, Ireland, Germany and France acting first. Multinational operators Norwegian and TUI grounded their entire fleets, even though regulations only required limited planes to be removed from service. Keeping up with the list of 737 MAX groundings has turned into simply trying to identify those airlines and countries where the type still operates.
On Tuesday morning in Chicago, after half the world’s 737 MAX planes were grounded either by regulators or the airlines that operate them, Boeing issued an updated statement. It implies that the actions are premature, but acceptable as a response to local sentiment.
Safety is Boeing’s number one priority and we have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX. 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 them to ensure they have the information needed to have confidence in operating their fleets. The United States 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
Politicians and labor unions are involved as well. Multiple US Congressional representatives called for the FAA to reconsider its position and to ground the aircraft. Flight Attendant unions were split initially but by Tuesday the APFA, representing American Airlines’ crew, had changed its tune. The group is now calling on the company’s CEO to ground its frames until more data is available. Also notable in this shift of position is that the group is not bothering with the FAA nor Boeing. They have more sway with their management, of course, but also an airline action is seen as more likely in the US than a regulatory one.
Southwest Airlines received support from its pilots’ union and its mechanics to keep the plane flying. The Transport Workers Union wants the planes grounded.
If nothing else, the mixed messages are disconcerting to the traveling public. The move by China to act before Boeing, the FAA or Ethiopian Authorities issued any details from the ET302 incident was highly unusual. The follow-on moves are the rest of the world signaling that they are not willing to sit by while waiting for more data to be gathered.
That the decision are rolling in one country or carrier at a time furthers the uncertainty around the operation of the aircraft. Passengers and crew are now faced with an impossible choice: Which of the regulators and airlines are correct? No passenger has the necessary data to make that choice and should not be expected to. Perhaps it is fortunate that the decision to ground planes has tipped past half the total planes flying, reducing the number of passengers that must make such a choice.
In the meantime, the US carriers are, generally speaking, not offering their passengers a free change to a different aircraft type. Until and unless the FAA or Boeing changes their minds the US carriers appear committed to continue operating the MAX.
Maybe a fix
Boeing is confident that a software update will help address some of the control issues identified as a result of the Lion Air crash. But those are not yet fully tested and deployed. The company believes that its training process prepares pilots to override the computers in such control scenarios where required. Could the FAA or Boeing decide to ground the MAX fleet until the new software is fully deployed? Absolutely. Will it? That seems unlikely based on prior statements.
And there’s no guarantee that the software fix will address the cause of the Ethiopian crash. The data from that incident is still being collected; the analysis stage remains pending. Public opinion, however, is speaking quite loudly.
Measuring the revolt
In the meantime, a global revolt of sorts is calling both Boeing and the FAA’s judgement into question. Is the regulator effective or is it granting the companies it oversees too much control of the process? Can the manufacturers be trusted to place safety above profits? Can the regulators?
This is not the first time that questions have been raised about the willingness of the Agency to make tough regulatory calls that adversely affect businesses in the name of safety. And there is absolutely a balance that it must strike. Proving a negative – the plane will never crash – is impossible and there are very real costs with every ruling it makes. But a growing collection of nations believes that inaction by Boeing and the FAA is a mistake.
This is a seismic shift in how regulators typically operate. The long term impact is unclear. But if the US regulator and manufacturer are no longer trusted to place safety first on a global scale that’s far worse news than the short term impact of grounding a few hundred planes.