Safety first

David Fickling | Updated on March 13, 2019

Calls for grounding the 737 Max 8 get louder

It is a daily miracle that the general public accepts the existence of the aviation industry.

Everyday, around 100,000 flights take off and fly between towns and cities around the world, each carrying fuel with the stored energy of a cruise missile. That we tolerate and even welcome this state of affairs is a tribute to the generations of engineers and administrators and regulators who have made travelling by air safer than driving the car to the mall.

It’s tempting to declare that the vast and complex infrastructure undergirding the safety of modern aviation is unnecessary, as US President Donald Trump argued on Twitter Tuesday.

Ultimately, though, this infrastructure supports the rock-solid reputation of the aviation industry. In continuing to stand squarely behind the Boeing Co. 737 Max 8 while its peer regulators take a more precautionary approach, the US Federal Aviation Administration risks squandering that.

This opinion is echoed by Ray LaHood, the former US Secretary of Transportation who grounded the 787 Dreamliner following fires in its lithium-ion battery packs in 2013.

The flying public has to be assured that these planes are safe, and they don’t feel that way now, he said by phone on Tuesday. The Secretary of Transportation should announce today that these planes will be grounded until there is 100 per cent assurance from Boeing that these planes are safe to fly, because unless they can give that assurance they are not holding up their promise to be the top safety agency in the US.

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority on Tuesday became the latest national air regulator to ground the Max 8 in the wake of Sunday’s crash of Ethiopian Airlines Group Flight 302. Authorities in China, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and Malaysia have already made the move. With the UK move affecting Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA and TUI AG, two of the biggest airlines still operating the 737 Max outside the US, the time for the FAA to get on board is overdue.

LaHood’s experience is instructive. At the time, the 123-day grounding of the Dreamliner was seen as a potential disaster for Boeing, potentially costing hundreds of millions of dollars and resulting in delays and cancellations of orders. In the end, the costs proved to be minimal, according to the company, burnished away by insurance coverage and the magic of program accounting.

Indeed, the baptism of fire experienced by the Dreamliner has allowed the plane’s real virtues to shine through. With the battery problem fixed, it has emerged as a popular and fuel-efficient aircraft with an excellent safety record. That is a lesson to the FAA.

While other regulators and companies take action, the credibility of the FAA in holding out is teetering. US transport agencies promise only to act on the basis of substantial evidence, but there is clearly sufficient evidence already for a reasonable person to want to pause flights until there is a clearer understanding of what is behind these crashes.

A full investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board would provide the most solid findings but passengers cannot be expected to wait for the year or so that such a report would take, according to LaHood. You can’t wait a year. This needs to be dealt with immediately, he said. This is the most important thing the Department of Transportation can do, to protect people in all modes of transport. Nothing less than total transparency will deal with this problem now. The FAA and Boeing need to demonstrate that they put no priority above safety.


Published on March 13, 2019

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