WAS THIS PREVENTABLE?

On Wednesday, President Trump grounded Boeing 737 Max models, following other nations’ lead. But did the government shutdown indirectly contribute to this tragedy?

737 Max
MICHAEL TEWELDEAFP/GETTY IMAGES/TNS
People stand near collected debris at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 near Bishoftu, a town some 36 southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 11.

COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS

WASHINGTON ‒ President Donald Trump grounded Boeing’s 737 Max planes Wednesday, following the lead of 51 other countries that have ordered an indefinite freeze in flying the model involved in two calamitous crashes.

“The safety of the American people and all people is our paramount concern,” Trump said during a meeting at the White House. “All of those planes are grounded, effective immediately,” Trump said.

The order affects the Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9. Trump said any planes currently in the air would be grounded upon completion of their flights “until further notice.”

He added, “Boeing is an incredible company. They are working very, very hard right now.”

FAA, airlines object

At least 18 carriers ‒ including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, the two largest U.S. carriers flying the 737 Max 8 ‒ previously declined to ground their planes, saying they were confident in the safety and “airworthiness” of their fleets. American and Southwest have 24 and 34 of the aircraft in their fleets, respectively.

Before Trump acted, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had not grounded the aircraft, saying Tuesday that the agency had found “no basis” for taking such action.

Boeing, which posted a record $101 billion in revenue last year, had issued a new statement Tuesday saying that no grounding of planes was necessary.

“Based on the information currently available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators,” the company said.

Officials have not yet determined what caused Ethiopian Airlines 302 to nosedive into the ground, but many experts have noted similarities between this week’s crash and one in Indonesia last year.

‘Lust for profit’

“The United States should be leading the world in aviation safety,” said John Samuelsen, the president of a union representing transport workers that called Tuesday for the planes to be grounded.

“And yet, because of the lust for profit in the American aviation, we’re still flying planes that dozens of other countries and airlines have now said need to grounded.

“This pressure should not be on these pilots to overcome an engineering flaw that Boeing themselves acknowledges,” said Samuelsen.

Other aviation observers also have raised questions about the Max version of the 737, which is the most-produced aircraft in Boeing’s line of jetliners, with more than 5,000 on order worldwide.

Grounded worldwide

Trump’s decision came after Canada joined much of the world in grounding the Max jetliner Wednesday, which had left the United States virtually alone in allowing the aircraft to keep flying. It also came a day after Trump complained about the increasing complexity of modern airliners.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot,” he tweeted.

The announcement by Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau came after aviation authorities in Europe, India, China and elsewhere grounded the plane in the aftermath of two fatal crashes in the last six months involving the 737 Max, the latest version of Boeing’s hugely popular twin-engine jetliner.

Garneau told reporters that Canada banned the plane from operating in the country, or flying over it, because of inconclusive data suggesting similarities between the crashes.

International passenger list

The second accident occurred March 10 when an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max crashed after takeoff, killing 157 people from at least 35 countries, including 32 Kenyans; 18 Canadians; nine Ethiopians; eight each from the U.S., China and Italy; and seven each from Great Britain and France.

Six members of one Canadian family were among those killed. The Dixit-Vaidya family were travelling on a family holiday to Kenya, where Kosha Vaidya, 37, was born. She was travelling with her husband, Prerit Dixit, 45, two daughters, Ashka, 14 and Anushka, 13, and parents Pannagesh Vaidya, 71, and Hansini Vaidya, 63.

Also among those killed on the flight were 22 United Nations staff members, according to CNN. Many travelers were flying to Nairobi for a major meeting of the U.N. Environment Assembly.

The outlet noted that the flight has been nicknamed a “UN shuttle,” owing to its route between Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where the African Union headquarters are located, and Nairobi, Kenya, home of the UN’s headquarters in Africa.

Minute of silence

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres held a minute of silence at the New York headquarters Monday and ordered flags flown at half-staff at many of the organization’s offices and installations.

“A global tragedy has hit close to home, and the United Nations is united in grief,” Guterres said, extending his “deepest condolences” to the relatives and loved ones of all those who died.

“Let us honor the memory of our colleagues, by keeping their spirit of service alive,” he said.

Workers for other humanitarian agencies, including Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children, were also among the dead, officials said.

Billions lost?

Meanwhile, the mounting concerns reportedly have prompted some airlines to reconsider their 737 Max orders.

Kenya Airways is re-evaluating plans to buy the plane and might switch to the rival Airbus A320 or upgrade to Boeing’s larger 787 Dreamliner, Bloomberg reported the carrier’s chairman, Michael Joseph, as saying. In addition, Indonesia’s Lion Air is moving to drop a $22 billion order for the 737 in favor of the Airbus model, Bloomberg reported an unidentified source as saying.

It was the crash of a Lion Air 737 Max in October in Indonesia, which killed 189 people, that first raised questions about the aircraft, and analysts have focused on software in the new jetliner intended to stop the plane from stalling.

Automatic correction

The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, was included on the Max 8 model aircraft as a safety mechanism that would automatically correct a plane entering a stall pattern. If the plane loses lift under its wings during takeoff and the nose begins to point far upward, the system kicks in and automatically pushes the nose of the plane down.

After the Lion Air crash, the FAA’s issued an airworthiness directive that said: “This condition, if not addressed, could cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane, and lead to excessive nose-down attitude, significant altitude loss, and possible impact with terrain.”

But maintenance issues and possible pilot error related to the software also are being evaluated and the crash remains under investigation.

Suspected problems

Two related stories emerged this week.

First: Pilots repeatedly voiced safety concerns about the 737 Max 8 to federal authorities, with one captain calling the flight manual “inadequate and almost criminally insufficient” several months before the Ethiopian Air crash, an investigation by The Dallas Morning News found.

Second: according to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. government officials suggest that the December government shutdown caused by Trump’s demand for a border wall was partly responsible for delaying crucial software fixes for the Boeing jetliners.  

From the Journal: “A software fix to the MCAS flight-control feature by the FAA and Boeing had been expected early in January, but discussions between regulators and the plane maker dragged on, partly over differences of opinion about technical and engineering issues, according to people familiar with the details.

“Officials from various parts of Boeing and the FAA had differing views about how extensive the fix should be. U.S. officials have said the federal government’s recent shutdown also halted work on the fix for five weeks.”

U.S. regulators are mandating that Boeing upgrade the plane’s software by April.

Autopilot problem known

The Morning News found at least five complaints about the Boeing model in a federal database where pilots can voluntarily report about aviation incidents without fear of repercussions. The disclosures refer to problems with an autopilot system during takeoff and nose-down situations while trying to gain altitude during flights of Boeing 737 Max 8s.

Records show a captain who flies the Max 8 complained in November that it was “unconscionable” that the company and federal authorities allowed pilots to fly the planes without adequate training or fully disclosing information about how its systems differed. The captain’s complaint was logged after the FAA released an emergency airworthiness directive regarding the Boeing 737 Max 8 in response to the Lion Air crash.

Another complaint from the captain who called into question the 737 Max 8’s flight manual ended: “The fact that this airplane requires such jury-rigging to fly is a red flag. Now we know the systems employed are error-prone ‒ even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place and failure modes. I am left to wonder: what else don’t I know?”


Noah Bierman and Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times; and Cary Aspinwall, Ariana Giorgi and Dom Difurio of the Dallas Morning News / TNS all contributed to this report.

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