Since the tragic crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX 8s, the first in Indonesia in October and the second in Ethiopia in March, there’s been an awful lot of talk about safety being “the number one priority.”
Boeing executives recite that safety is the company’s top priority in almost every public statement; FAA and other agencies have emphasized it in testimony to lawmakers; airlines that operate the MAX, but whose aircraft did not crash, similarly have repeated the mantra.
Safety is not, however, the top priority of just one aircraft or engine manufacturer, one regulatory authority or one airline. It’s the number one priority of the entire industry.
This has been the case throughout almost the entire history of commercial air transport. It’s based on a fundamental tenet that while airlines and manufacturers compete for business, they do not compete on safety.
That is why this industry has such an exemplary record of working together and assisting each other when there is a serious incident. The industry comes together, first to help the victims, and then to methodically and painstakingly establish what went wrong, why, what lessons need to be learned and how to apply them to the entire global community.
The MAX crashes, and the second one in particular, have fractured some of the trust and cohesiveness that have led to air travel being by far the safest form of transport.
Some in this industry, particularly in the US, have been too quick to point fingers and cast public blame on non-American pilots they imply are not as well trained or qualified as US pilots. Shame on them for such insinuations when the accident investigations are ongoing and the final causes are yet to be established.
If, as has also been implied, some airlines are “less safe”, why would a manufacturer sell aircraft to them without fully advising and supporting them on what safety systems they should include in their aircraft and what pilot training standards they will need?
With the fastest growth in passenger traffic being in world regions that are relatively new to mass, affordable air travel—and many of the thousands of new-generation narrowbodies destined for startup LCCs—this question of supplier support is a critical one.
FAA acting administrator Dan Elwell, meanwhile, has expressed hope that his agency can restore the collaboration with other world agencies that broke down in the immediate wake of the Ethiopian crash. That’s a worthy ambition that will do much to lift this industry’s reputation to its rightful place as one that always makes safety its top priority.
But it will only work if all sides recognize that everyone in this industry is vested in safety; not just Americans.