Boeing and U.S. Federal Aviation Administration define the spectacular success of the American commercial aviation industry. Since the late 1960s, the Boeing 737 series has been an airborne wonder, the most popular single-aisle passenger jet in the world – still is. At the same time, the FAA has set the gold standard for airline safety, to the point that airline fatalities have virtually disappeared in the United States.
The crashes of two new Boeing 737 Max 8 jets, the first in October in Indonesia, the second on March 10 in Ethiopia, threatens the fine reputation of Boeing and the FAA. Until the last moment, both of them defied the global rush – led by China – to ground the Max 8 after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed all 157 passengers and crew aboard, including 18 Canadians.
The U.S.-based 737 Max 8s were not grounded until Wednesday afternoon, three full days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The United States and Canada were among the last holdouts; the U.S. groundings came immediately after Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau, noting apparent though unproven similarities between the Indonesian and Ethiopian disasters, ordered the plane out of Canadian airspace (Air Canada is one of the jet’s main buyers).
Why were the Americans so late to ground the plane?
The long delay has backfired on Boeing and the FAA, and also on Donald Trump, who was personally lobbied by Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg on Tuesday to keep the Max 8 flying. Boeing was insisting the plane was safe, even as passengers around the world were afraid of boarding flights. Many of them suspected that whatever malfunction brought down the Lion Air flight in the Java Sea off Indonesia may also have downed the Ethiopian Airlines flight.
Rule No. 1 in crisis management, especially when human safety is involved, is to err on the side of caution. Airlines, like car companies, should not and cannot wait until the results of investigations are known to swing into action.
Moving fast even in the absence of hard evidence can enhance the reputation of a company with a faulty product. The classic example is Johnson & Johnson’s withdrawal of Tylenol in 1982 after seven deaths attributed to drug tampering. J&J cleared the shelves of the painkiller in a hurry, explained what it was doing with full transparency and reintroduced the product in tamper-proof packages. The company’s response was widely applauded and restored consumer confidence in both J&J and Tylenol quickly.
The response by Boeing and the FAA could not have been more different. The delay in removing the Max 8 from the skies, coupled with phone calls between Mr. Trump and Mr. Muilenburg, and the close connections between the White House and Boeing, gave the impression that protecting the profits of Boeing was the priority, not public safety. The delay was all the more curious in light of the response of Max 8 pilots in the autumn, after the Indonesian crash. About a dozen pilot reports were lodged into a federal flight-safety reporting system. Some flagged potential flaws in the planes’ flight control systems. Others cited shortcomings in flight instruction for the aircraft, which is substantially different from the previous generation. The FAA surely must have known about the pilots’ reports.
It is well known that the Trump administration has deep links to Boeing. When Mr. Trump said goodbye to defence secretary James Mattis in December, Patrick Shanahan came in as his acting replacement. Mr. Shanahan, who was deputy defence secretary, had spent 30 years as a Boeing executive. A former Boeing lobbyist serves as the staff director of the Senate’s commerce, science and transportation committee, which is to hold hearings on aviation safety, and Boeing is routinely one of the biggest lobbyists in Washington, spending US$15.1-million to try to curry favour in Congress and the White House last year alone.
The FAA, meanwhile, uses employees from aircraft manufacturers to help certify the airworthiness of aircraft, leaving it open to accusations that the agency is too close to the industry. The FAA itself has no administrator – it is run by an FAA deputy. Mr. Trump reportedly suggested giving the top job to John Dunkin, his personal pilot, but the idea was laughed out of Congress. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump is trying to cut the FAA’s budget.
Boeing and the FAA have a lot of work to do rebuild their safety-first reputations. Just think what would have happened if they had insisted on grounding the Max 8 within hours of the Ethiopian crash. Such a move would have reinforced their fine reputations for caution. Instead, it was China that looked like the responsible party in the Ethiopian disaster. China grounded the plane the day after the crash. It was a bold yet sensible move in a country that is trying to build its global commercial aviation credentials. What an embarrassment for Boeing and the FAA.