Better late than never and better safe than sorry, as the old sayings go.
So credit where it’s due: President Donald Trump made the right decision Wednesday afternoon, when he finally grounded the troubled Boeing 737 Max 8 and a larger-capacity variant in the United States.
Just on Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration insisted there was no reason to take the planes out of service, even though virtually every country has temporarily grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8. But by mid-afternoon Wednesday, the United States was basically alone, making its position untenable.
Trump’s announcement came after Canada — which on Tuesday said it had no plans to restrict the plane — reversed course and banned both the Max 8 and Max 9 on Wednesday. Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said satellite tracking data revealed similarities in the two crashes involving those planes in the last five months.
Even before that data, there were red flags aplenty with Boeing’s big-selling workhorse 737. The first crash was that of a Lion Air plane, which slammed into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff from a Jakarta airport last October, killing all 189 aboard. The second came on Sunday, when an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 went down shortly after taking off from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 aboard.
In both cases, pilots reported problems after takeoff and requested permission to return to the airport. Both planes had trouble reaching the proper elevation. With the Lion Air flight, that was because the safety system’s anti-stall feature repeatedly put the plane nose down, apparently because it was getting incorrect information from the plane’s sensors.
The pilots on the Ethiopian flight also had reported flight-control problems. Canadian minister Garneau said satellite data revealed similarities in the climbing pattern of the two doomed flights. Pilots logged a number of complaints with the FAA about the same Boeing model in 2018.
Boeing has a lot riding on the success of its 737 Max 8 and Max 9 (which has room for 15 more passengers), with hundreds of planes on order around the world. A total of 72 are in use by US airlines American, Southwest, and United. Some regularly fly in and out of Logan.
Tom Kinton, the former CEO and aviation director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, says he favored an immediate grounding of the problematic fleet and finally the United States is doing the right thing. The FAA should be “erring on the side of safety,” said Kinton, who is now an aviation consultant.
That’s all the more true in this case because both the FAA and Boeing have agreed that the Max’s computerized safety system needs a software update. So, until Trump’s decision, the flying public was left with a situation where Boeing and the FAA insisted the aircraft was safe, even though the manufacturer acknowledged the need for significant changes to the plane’s software.
The administration has made the right first move here. Now it’s incumbent on the FAA to ensure that the problems are fully solved before the plane is allowed to carry passengers again. One way to do that is not to leave the final decision to the FAA alone, but to consult closely with Canadian and European aviation experts. And further, to commit to keeping these planes on the ground until there’s a consensus among those experts and ours that it is truly safe to fly.