Public pressure is not a good reason for government to pull an aircraft out of service. Have we learned nothing from past panics?
After an Ethiopian Airlines crash killed 157 passengers on Sunday, and a Lion Air crash killed 189 last fall, the Trump administration issued an executive order to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft on Wednesday. For days, the Federal Aviation Administration had maintained that there was no evidence that such action was warranted, even as international aviation authorities banned the 737 Max from their respective airspaces.
In an interview, FAA acting administrator Dan Elwell explained that the decision was finally made after discovering similarities between the Ethiopian flight’s profile and that of the Lion Air flight. But analysts have been pointing this out for days, and the statement runs contrary to an earlier claim that the agency was waiting for definitive data from the aircraft’s black boxes. One component from the wreckage indicates the plane was set to dive. A preliminary report released by the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee cites a history of maintenance failures as a contributing factor to the Lion Air crash. More likely, the FAA’s decision was made because of mounting social and political pressure.
Some might rather be safe than sorry, but the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board have a process for determining whether to ground an airplane. It involves not only an investigation of the accident in question, but also an extensive review of aggregate safety performance from pilots and operators of the aircraft. That review had already been performed, according to Elwell on Tuesday, which is why the agency declined to ground the Boeing 737 Max in the first place.
Modern flight systems are complex, but hardly cutting edge. The guiding principle is “reliability first” – which is why they are so inefficient and also so safe, with lots of engineered redundancy.
The current Boeing episode is reminiscent of another famous vehicle recall: that of Toyota’s sticky accelerator pedals. After a number of high-profile collisions following abrupt accelerations, in 2010 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began a 10-month study investigating Toyota’s sudden-acceleration problems. For several weeks, the accidents became one of the most reported stories in U.S. news, at one point making up 11 percent of all media coverage.
Ultimately, NHTSA found that all but one of the 75 accidents studied were the result of driver error. Many in the public believed the figure should be higher. The finding was so controversial that the Department of Transportation blocked release of the report.
High-profile accident investigations often become political footballs. A few things particularly stirred public interest in two recent Boeing accidents: that 22 UN staffers were on board one of the aircraft, that an automation feature was involved, and that Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenburg and President Donald Trump seem to have a friendly relationship. Of course all lives are valuable, and of course automation and industry ties should be scrutinized. But …
According to a report from Boeing, approximately 80 percent of accidents are attributable to human error, up from 20 percent a little over a century ago. This doesn’t mean pilots are growing incompetent; rather, aircraft have gotten much safer while humans stayed about the same. While it’s still possible that an investigation will reveal a fundamental flaw in Boeing’s flight systems, what’s more likely is that humans are the problem. But there is no outcry to ground all airline pilots.
Whatever these specific investigations reveal, in the future airworthiness should not be determined by public sentiment.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Elaine Ou is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access in San Francisco. Previously she was a lecturer in the electrical and information engineering department at the University of Sydney.
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