The worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max fleet “out of an abundance of caution” is a break with the FAA’s traditional data-driven approach to accident investigations. Could this mean an end to the way safety decisions have been made?
The U.S. grounding Wednesday of the Boeing 737 Max fleet worldwide capped a stunning series of unprecedented events in the days after the fatal crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 last Sunday. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) decision to ground the fleet based on third-party satellite data ended decades of the agency’s practice of evaluating data from the aircraft’s “black boxes” and from investigations on the ground.
The FAA made the historic decision based on data from satellite-navigation company Aireon, which tracked the flight with its satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system.
This is the first time the FAA has used third-party data alone in grounding a commercial fleet. Boeing and Aireon refined the preliminary data on Tuesday, a capability FAA said it didn’t have. By Wednesday, the FAA said it had seen enough to make a decision.
“It became clear to all parties that the track of the Ethiopian flight was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight,” Acting FAA Administrator Daniel K. Elwell told reporters on March 13.
Ethiopian Flight 302 crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa on March 10, killing all 157 passengers and crew on board, and Lion Air Flight 610, with 189 fatalities, went down off the coast of Indonesia shortly after takeoff last October. Both flights were operated with Boeing 737-8 Max aircraft.
Elwell noted the “evidence coalesced” to the point where FAA had to act, but he added that he hoped the data from the black boxes — the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder — had been decoded sooner. This was an oblique reference to Ethiopia’s unexplained delay in processing the black boxes, which were found early in the crash investigation, on March 11.
Because the doomed jet was manufactured in the U.S., standard investigation protocol would have sent the recorders to an FAA or National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) facility in the U.S., but Ethiopia, which does not have the technology to extract data from the damaged recorders itself, reportedly wanted to send the boxes to what it considered a more neutral country. The recorders arrived in France on March 14.
This is unusual, but not unprecedented, as the country where the accident occurred can decide where to send the boxes, explained Shawn Pruchniki, a lecturer at the Ohio State University’s Center for Aviation Studies. The FAA’s Elwell added: “Their soil, their aircraft, their airline,” referring to Ethiopian authorities’ decision to send the recorders to France.
FAA Trumped on Announcement
The way the FAA’s decision was announced, however, also was unprecedented. In 2013, when FAA grounded the Boeing 787 fleet due to lithium-ion battery issues, then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, not President Barack Obama, made the announcement.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday upended the usual practice by making the announcement himself, hours before the FAA issued its emergency order. This was a day after Trump broke with precedent on active investigations by weighing in on the accident on Twitter, commenting that aircraft had become too technologically complex to fly safely.
“Complexity creates danger,” Trump tweeted, adding “I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!” This tweet reportedly prompted a call from Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg to assure the president the Max is safe to fly.
Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2019
Before FAA decided to ground the Max fleet, it was the lone holdout worldwide among regulatory agencies. Shortly after the accident, China and Ethiopia banned Max flights, followed by more than 40 countries and the European Union. All cited “an abundance of caution,” and the need to ground the Max as a “precautionary measure.” Canada stood with the FAA until earlier on March 13, when, citing satellite data, the transportation minister grounded the aircraft.
These cascading events are unprecedented in two ways, aviation industry experts say. First, the world usually follows FAA’s lead on accidents involving aircraft manufactured in the U.S. And second, citing passenger concerns and the need for precautionary measures is a repudiation of FAA’s traditional data-driven approach to investigations. Much of this reaction appeared to be driven by media reports on the similarities between the Ethiopian and Lion Air accidents and not data, said a person familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to talk freely.
Indeed, the Flight Safety Foundation said as much in its statement on the worldwide reaction to the accident investigation. “This globally haphazard approach to an important airworthiness issue was most unfortunate, but we understand the need to reassure the traveling public,” Flight Safety Foundation President Hassan Shahidi said. “Moving forward, we must allow aviation safety professionals — investigators, regulators, engineers, and pilots — to calmly and objectively analyze the data, collaborate, and implement permanent, corrective fixes to ensure a tragedy like this can never happen again.”
Boeing said it collaborated with the FAA and agreed with the agency’s decision. “Boeing 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 the operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 Max aircraft,” the company said in a statement.
U.S. pilots unions stood with the FAA in declaring the Max safe to fly but had to hurriedly change their positions after the FAA issued its emergency order. “We stand by the statement we issued yesterday evening regarding our confidence in the aircraft and in our members’ ability to safely fly it, but just as Boeing has stated, we concur with the FAA’s reasoning,” said Daniel Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents Max operator American Airlines’ pilots. “We are very interested to learn about any new information or facts that have emerged since Sunday’s crash, which would have contributed to the decision,” Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, which represents pilots at the largest U.S. Max operator, said in a statement. And the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents Max 9 operator United Airlines’ pilots said, “Out of an abundance of caution, North American regulators have acted in the best interests of aviation safety.”
‘A Whole New World’
The grounding of an aircraft fleet out of an abundance of caution or out of respect for customer sentiment, rather than after a thorough accident investigation, is extraordinary, aviation experts said.
The cascading groundings by regulatory agencies worldwide, instead of following the FAA’s lead, also is extraordinary, as is the FAA’s use of private-sector satellite data rather than its own interpretation of the black boxes. Whether these breaks with precedent signal a sea change in the way accidents are investigate and fleets are grounded remains uncertain, experts said. “It’s a whole new world,” an industry source told Skift.
Unnikrishnan is the editor of Skift Airline Weekly.
Photo credit: Rescue workers at the scene of the crash of Ethiopian Airways Flight 302. Christopher Jasper and Nizar Manek / Bloomberg