Trump’s Boeing Ties Raise Questions About FAA’s Reluctance To Ground The 737 MAX
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced the grounding of all Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes in US airspace. The US is one of the last countries to do so. Almost 50 countries grounded the planes earlier this week, following increasing concern that a software malfunction in the model prompted two crashes in the past five months. In an era of ever-increasing flight safety, the succession of crashes is unprecedented and merits concern, not least because there are over 350 737 MAX 8 planes in service throughout the world.
Up until Wednesday, however, the FAA was refusing to ground the planes in the US, citing “no systemic performance issues” upon review of the 737 MAX 8 “so far.” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her staff even flew in one of the planes on Tuesday from Austin to Washington, DC, ostensibly to demonstrate their safety.
The FAA’s statement directly refuted concerns from nearly every other major country’s aviation authorities. It also ignored growing calls for an investigation into the 737 MAX, notably from such bodies as the Association of Flight Attendants.
Most concerning, however, is that the FAA may have even purposely ignoring information it was aware of in keeping the 737 MAX 8 airborne. Per the Seattle Times’ Matt Baker, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were both provided satellite data on Monday corroborating similarities between the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes. The Canadian government cited this very data in its decision to ground planes early Wednesday.
A new detail here: Canada’s abrupt decision to ban the 737 MAX this morning came hours after viewing detailed data that was provided to the FAA two days ago https://t.co/4SXNGTozbL
— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) March 13, 2019
The lack of clarity in the FAA’s decision, combined with Boeing’s possible negligence in creating and updating the 737 MAX 8, as well as the close ties Boeing enjoys with the Trump administration, all prompt questions as to whether the FAA and this administration are truly acting to protect the safety of passengers.
Two Crashes in a Span of Five Months
This Sunday, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed in a small village in Ethiopia, killing all 157 passengers; in October, Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia crashed in the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board. Both planes crashed not long after takeoff, under clear skies, and appear to have malfunctioned under very comparable circumstances, with the issue appearing to be a software error causing the plane to pitch down.
In the case of the Lion Air flight, the pilots were apparently unable to override the automatic systems that caused the plane to pitch down. Another flight crew had encountered the same problem the day before, per CNN, but was able to switch off the so-called maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS).
While data from the Ethiopian airlines crash is still being gathered and analyzed, preliminary observations indicate a similar scenario in that case as well.
Boeing and its 737 MAX 8 rollout merit investigation
Jeff Wise, in Slate magazine, details how the 737 MAX 8 came to be. He recounts business decisions that seem suspicious, to say the least. Boeing has for years been competing with rival Airbus to provide planes for the world’s short to medium range flights, carrying between 100 and 200 passengers. Such flights comprise the biggest share of the aviation market that Boeing and Airbus jointly dominate.
The problem for Boeing, Wise writes, was that the product it offered for this part of the market- the 737, which first flew in 1967- was heavier and not as technologically advanced as Airbus’ 320 models. Despite updates over time, the Boeing 737’s have mechanical instead of electronic flight guidance controls and are made with aluminum rather than more lightweight materials.
When Airbus released the 320neo, a more fuel efficient model in 2014, Boeing had to respond. And, in an effort to save money, the company did so in a very questionable manner. From Wise:
“In order to accommodate the engine’s larger diameter, Boeing engineers had to move the point where the plane attaches to the wing. This, in turn, affected the way the plane handled. Most alarmingly, it left the plane with a tendency to pitch up, which could result in a dangerous aerodynamic stall. To prevent this, Boeing added a new autopilot system that would pitch the nose down if it looked like it was getting too high. According to a preliminary report, it was this system that apparently led to the Lion Air crash.”
Most alarming is the fact that Boeing failed to outline the changes to the automated system in the manual or training requirements for the 737 MAX. Moreover, U.S. regulators were already aware Boeing had failed to do so following the Lion Air crash.
Boeing was planning software updates after the Lion Air crash that would ostensibly fix the problem. These were expected to be rolled within 6-8 weeks, per Reuters. Improved training, was also cited as a need, ostensibly because of Boeing’s omission.
However, these fixes were then delayed until April. Among the reasons given for the delays were engineering challenges in upgrading the software, as well as the recent government shutdown.
However, a third reason proves most concerning. Per WSJ’s Andy Pasztorand and Andrew Tangel, last month:
“…another reason for the delay stems from differences of opinion among some federal and company safety experts over how extensive the changes should be.
Originally, software updates were expected to be fairly straightforward and slated to be announced in early January. But since then, there have been discussions about potentially adding enhanced pilot training and possibly mandatory cockpit alerts to the package, according to one person briefed on the details.
There also has been consideration of more-sweeping design changes that would prevent faulty signals from a single sensor from touching off the automated stall-prevention system, officials said. But at this point, they said, such options appear to be losing favor among regulators.”
The Trump administration’s chummy ties with Boeing
Boeing has again stated it will roll out software upgrades to the 737 MAX 8 by April, amid an FAA demand for “design changes.” However, given the way Boeing and US officials have handled this crisis so far, there is substantial room for doubt that either camp will handle this adequately. And there are many questions left unanswered:
Why was Boeing allowed to get away with not disclosing changes to its system in manuals and trainings?
Why didn’t regulators insist on design changes and pilot training when they realized the flaws in the 737 MAX 8 caused the Lion Air crash, not to mention at least one other reported in-flight malfunction (the flight crew from the day before the crash)?
And why did it take the FAA so long to ground the planes?
The answer may not lie within the FAA, but several steps up the Trump administration ladder.
Boeing and President Trump have a deep-seated relationship that ought to be scrutinized. Per the NYT’s Ken Vogel, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg called Trump on Tuesday to convince him the 737 Max 8’s are safe and that they don’t need to be grounded.
NEW: @Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke by phone with TRUMP this a.m., urging him not to ground 737 Max 8s after Sunday’s crash.
* Muilenburg has tried to cultivate Trump. He visited Mar-a-Lago after AF1 dust-up, & Boeing donated $1M to Trump inaugural.https://t.co/OUXRGBsE5T
— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) March 12, 2019
But it goes much farther than that. Vox’s Emily Stewart details a mutually beneficial partnership between Trump and Muilenberg that includes:
- A $1 million dollar donation by Boeing to the Trump’s inauguration events
- Muilenburg personally negotiating with Trump to bring down the cost of the new Air Force One.
- Trump pressuring U.S. allies to buy Boeing products.
- Trump publicly using Boeing to threaten Lockheed Martin over the cost overruns of its F-35 jet
Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
- Trump holding events at Boeing facilities.
During his summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un last month, Trump even took a break to attend a ceremony where two Vietnamese airlines agreed to purchase $15.7 billion worth of Boeing aircraft, including 100 737 Max planes.
Boeing’s coziness with Trump also extends outward to his administration as well. The company nominated former UN ambassador Nikki Haley to be elected to its Board of Directors just last month.
And then there’s acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan. Shanahan worked for Boeing for over 30 years, most recently serving as Vice President, Supply Chain & Operations, and as a member of the company’s Executive Council, right up until his appointment as Deputy Secretary of Defense in 2017.
Shanahan, in his role as Senior VP and GM of Airplane Programs, would have been very intimately involved in the rollout of the 737 MAX 8. He alluded to as much in an interview with Geekwire during the model’s inaugural test-flight in 2016, comparing it to “birth of a child.”
Shanahan is already facing accusations of using his role to curry favor for his old employer. On Wednesday, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, filed an ethics complaint, asking the Department of Defense Inspector General to investigate whether Shanahan used his position to promote Boeing’s weapons systems over competitors.
Per Military Time’s Tara Copp:
“Since coming to the Pentagon, Shanahan has faced criticism over reports that he has touted Boeing’s line of aircraft over rival Lockheed Martin. In the fiscal year 2020 budget released Tuesday, the Air Force is set to purchase up to 80 F-15Xs over the next five years — a system, made by Boeing, that the Air Force has said it does not want.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told Defense News in February that the “budget proposal that we initially submitted did not include additional fourth-generation aircraft.”
Wilson’s comments confirmed reporting by Defense News and other outlets, which have reported that the decision to buy new F-15X aircraft was essentially forced upon the Air Force.
Last week, Wilson announced that she was stepping down as Air Force Secretary to become president of the University of Texas-El Paso.”
The Public Has A Right To Know the Truth
When asked by CNN Tuesday about the MAX-8 crashes, Shanahan said: “let’s let the FAA and others take command of the situation.”
Given what is known about the inner workings of the Trump administration, this hardly inspires confidence. While there is, as yet, no definitive proof of outright wrongdoing on the part of Boeing, the FAA, and/or Mr. Shanahan, the often congenial links between the company and government officials exhibited in the matter of the 737 MAX 8 ought to merit congressional investigation – and it appears it will.
It is the job of the FAA and other government officials to ensure companies like Boeing always operate in a way that ensures the welfare of the public. Not the other way around.
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