The United States will follow much of the rest of the world in grounding Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 jets after the models were involved in two deadly plane crashes in five months. President Donald Trump and the FAA, which had initially resisted the move, issued the order on Wednesday.
Trump told reporters that “until further notice” the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will ground the planes in question in the US as part of an emergency order. “The safety of the American people, of all people, is our paramount concern,” he said.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, which fly Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, will be affected, as well United, which has Boeing 737 Max 9s.
The US is the last country with a significant number of Boeing 737 Max 8s to ground the planes. Canada, which also initially held out, decided to ground the planes earlier in the day on Wednesday.
The safety of the planes has come under heavy scrutiny in recent days after a pair of plane crashes just months apart put travelers on edge. On Sunday, March 10, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Nairobi, Kenya, faltered and crashed soon after taking off, killing all 157 people on board. Just five months before, in October, a Lion Air flight taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia, crashed, killing all 189 passengers. The flights were the same model of planes, the Boeing 737 Max 8.
The FAA in a statement on Wednesday said it reached the decision “as a result of the data gathering process and new evidence” collected and analyzed at the Ethiopian Airlines crash site on Wednesday.
Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s CEO, called Trump on Tuesday to tell him that the planes are safe and urged him against grounding them in the US. Boeing and Trump have a tight relationship — Boeing gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, and Trump has negotiated directly with Muilenburg over the price of the new Air Force One. The FAA has previously said it was waiting for all of the facts on the crash investigation before making any decisions, but it appears that the waiting will now occur while the 737 Max 8 jets are on the ground, not in the air.
Trump told reporters that any planes in the air right now “will be grounded upon landing at the destination,” according to the Washington Post. “Pilots have been notified. Airlines have been all notified,” he said.
Trump said that he had spoken with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell, and Muilenburg and that they were all in agreement with the decision. He also lavished praise on Boeing.
“Boeing is an incredible company,” he said. “They are working very, very hard right now, and hopefully they’ll very quickly come up with the answer, but until they do, the planes are grounded.”
On Tuesday, prior to speaking with Muilenburg, Trump posted a pair of tweets complaining that planes are “far too complex to fly” and that “complexity creates danger.” His Wednesday remarks were much more measured.
Why people are worried about these planes
The accidents in Ethiopia and Indonesia have sparked concern about the Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 models. Launched in 2017, prior to the accidents, there were more than 350 such models operating in the world.
According to CNBC, the October crash put scrutiny on the plane’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system. Boeing issued a safety bulletin for pilots in November explaining how to better handle the system, but it’s not clear whether that’s been enough.
Boeing on Monday put out a statement saying that it was developing a “flight control software enhancement” for the 737 Max and that it plans to implement the change by April. The FAA said on Monday that it will mandate design enhancements to Boeing’s automated system and signaling by April as well.
Observers have homed in on concerns about airplane automation and some specific features of these Boeing planes. Konstantin Kakaes in the MIT Technology Review laid out what’s going on:
But because it’s so complex, some pilots may have problems with it, especially if it’s the case that they’re not given all the training and information necessary to maneuver. That appears to have been part of the problem with the Lion Air flight. It’s not yet clear if that’s what happened with the Ethiopian Airlines flight.
The Dallas Morning News reported on Tuesday that pilots have brought multiple complaints about the safety of the Boeing 737 Max 8 to federal authorities, with one captain saying in November that it was “unconscionable” for pilots to fly the plane without training or explicit information about how its systems worked.
Boeing in a statement on Wednesday said it continues to have “full confidence” in the safety of the 737 Max airplanes but it has determined “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety — to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 Max aircraft.”
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