Karen Walker in ATW Editor’s Blog
The immediate aftermath of the Ethiopian Airlines’ Boeing 737 MAX crash is stunning. While it is not unprecedented for the aviation authorities and airlines of non-US countries to diverge from FAA on when an aircraft grounding is necessary, it is unusual. And the scale of this divergence is unprecedented.
In less than 60 hours of flight 302’s crash in Addis Ababa on Sunday, the MAX had been grounded pretty much any place where it is operated. By Tuesday evening, Austria, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK were among European countries that had already stopped MAX flights. They are notable because they did so even though EASA had not issued a grounding by that time. Then came the incredible announcement from EASA that it was issuing an immediate order to ground all MAXs, suspending operation of any aircraft into or within European Union countries.
By then, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore had already grounded the new narrowbody, while several individual airlines that operate the MAX had pulled the aircraft from their schedules.
FAA and Boeing remained firm on Tuesday that there was no data or information from the Ethiopian crash to link whatever caused the October crash of a Lion Air MAX 8, or to indicate the aircraft is unsafe. And the US airlines with MAXs in their fleets continued to fly them.
Almost everyone outside the US, however, took a “better safe than sorry” approach. Media and customer concerns were likely major factors in those decisions. For most airlines and countries, with few MAXs in service, rescheduling and cancellation disruptions are minimal. But when you have media widely publicizing which airlines operate the MAX and on which routes—the BBC even posted the specific MAX flights that Norwegian UK and TUI had scheduled for Tuesday—then the emotional pressure becomes huge. If airlines are taking calls from customers wanting to check which aircraft they are flying on, or to change their flight if it’s a MAX, or even worse, making a new booking based on which airline does not operate the MAX, then the ‘safe, not sorry approach’ is understandable.
But is it right?
From everything that was known about flight 302 by late Tuesday—and that was not a great deal—FAA was correct in saying there was no evidence to support a grounding. Indeed, EASA in its grounding statement acknowledged its action was a precautionary one and that “it is too early to draw any conclusions as to the cause of the accident.”
Let’s be clear. It’s almost certain that not one of the countries, regulatory authorities or airlines that have grounded the MAX since Sunday has any more information about that crash or the MAX than FAA. They have made the grounding call based on “concerns” and “similarities”. And the public is fueling those emotional concerns via the relatively new information source at its disposal after most airline crashes—flight radar tracks. “Experts” are quickly touting these as evidence of what went wrong and how; they are nothing of the sort.
However, the MAX story is running away from FAA and, for that matter, Boeing and US airline operators. US President Trump began tweeting on the issue, saying new aircraft were too complicated and presented a “danger”. Several big-name US senators have already called on FAA to take action and some are calling for congressional hearings. US flight attendant unions are also calling on FAA and their airline leaders to take action. You have to believe that the US airline customer service lines are filling with a whole lot of questions that start with, “will I be flying on a MAX?” By Tuesday afternoon, US petition organizations were issuing thousands of emails inviting people to sign a petition calling on US airlines to ground their MAXs.
Any aviation regulatory authority should take immediate and appropriate action where a serious safety risk is identified. FAA and DOT have reiterated that in the case of the MAX, they will do exactly that, but they won’t make such a call without evidence. So here’s the bind for them, and for that matter the US airlines; they are now in a no-win situation.
If anything emerges from the early investigation of the Ethiopian crash that implies a potential link to the Indonesian crash and/or the much-talked about MAX MCAS stall-prevention system, and FAA then issues a grounding, it will be slammed for not taking such action earlier.
If, however, early data enables investigators to at least rule out any connections, then all those who grounded the MAX can put it back into service with likely no public backlash. People will simply say, “my country/my regulatory authority/my airline took the safest course.”
Which isn’t true based on known facts, but it’s emotionally persuasive in an internet- and social media-connected world.
No aircraft manufacturer, airline or regulatory authority, wherever it is based, makes safety anything less than a top priority. But the MAX crash investigations, whatever their outcomes, appear to indicate new and diverging definitions between the US and the rest of the world on what is required to make a safety call.