Feds probe Boeing after Max 8 crashes
Federal prosecutors and the Department of Transportation have launched investigations into the development of Boeing’s 737 Max jets, it was revealed this week, as both the aerospace giant and the Federal Aviation Administration were accused of cutting corners to get the planes into service. The Justice Department opened its investigation after a Lion Air Max 8 crashed soon after taking off from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta last October, killing 189 people. That investigation picked up pace, Bloomberg.com reported, following the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 near Addis Ababa, which left 157 dead. The FAA grounded the 737 Max in the wake of that disaster, but only after 51 nations did so first. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao this week ordered her department’s inspector general to audit the process the FAA used to certify the 737 Max—which entered service in 2017—as safe to fly.
The two crashes have raised concerns about the “culture of coziness” that has developed between the FAA and Boeing. A lengthy investigation in The Seattle Times found that the FAA outsourced key elements of the 737 Max certification process to the company and that Boeing’s own analysis of an automated flight control feature designed to prevent a high-speed stall was deeply flawed. That feature has been implicated in both crashes. A former FAA safety engineer who worked on the certification told the Times that as Boeing raced to get the 737 Max in the air to compete against rival Airbus’ new A320neo, the agency “rushed” and curtailed reviews of technical documents supplied by Boeing. The company and the FAA say they followed all certification and regulatory requirements.
What the editorials said
These disasters have put the FAA’s reputation as a global standard setter at risk, said the Financial Times. An initial investigation into the Lion Air crash found that the onboard flight control software “repeatedly countermanded the pilot’s commands and pushed the aircraft’s nose down as they tried to climb.” Why didn’t the FAA insist that all pilots be trained in how to retake control? And why did it let the 737 Max keep flying at all?
Boeing pitched the new 737 to airlines as “an advanced version of a familiar jet,” said the Chicago Tribune. But clearly, this high-tech jet is very different from the old model 737. Boeing needs to let Americans know if a software update—which it promises to deliver in April—can rectify the nose-down problem, or if the plane’s design has to change. Passengers and pilots should be able to board a jet without “wondering what may happen during or after takeoff.”
What the columnists said
“This is what happens when corporations run the government,” said Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. The FAA’s acting head is an ex–vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, and Trump’s nominee to run the agency is a former Delta Air Lines executive. “In Trump’s broader corporatocracy, fully 350 former lobbyists work, have worked, or have been tapped to work in the administration.” These industry insiders have pushed deregulation, which boosts their old bosses’ profits at the expense of our safety.
Blaming the 737 Max crashes on Trump’s deregulation drive “doesn’t pass the test of logic,” said Ira Stoll in Reason.com. As The Seattle Times reported, the big FAA push to outsource 737 Max safety assessments to Boeing came in 2015, when a certain Barack Obama was president. And the FAA “has its defenders,” said Brianna Gurciullo and Tanya Snyder in Politico.com. Former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Christopher Hart notes that the agency has delegated certification duties to companies for decades and that U.S. airlines went a remarkable nine years without a single passenger fatality until last spring. That suggests, he says, “that something must be working very well.”
But something has now gone very wrong, said Jeff Hauser and Eleanor Eagan in TheHill.com. After the Lion Air crash, everyone—pilots, Boeing, the FAA—knew the 737 Max’s software was buggy. Yet the FAA let the jets keep flying as Boeing worked on a fix. This is a sign of how deeply “Trump-era corruption has infected our government.” If this administration was “willing to risk planes falling from the sky,” what quieter threats to our food, medicine, and other areas has it “allowed to go forward?”