After the second Boeing commercial airliner crashed in Ethiopia killing everyone on board, the FAA should have grounded the rest of the Boeing 737 Max 8 fleet in the interest of passenger safety. That would have helped to shore up public confidence in the FAA while giving Boeing the time it needed to locate and fix the problem. Instead, the FAA chose shrug off the growing public outcry and insisted that everything was okay. They said there was no evidence of “systemic performance issues” and therefore “no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” In retrospect, that was a big mistake. It made the agency look like a patsy for the aircraft industry.
The FAA’s second big mistake was concocting a phony story to conceal why they decided to reverse their original policy. The FAA said they were grounding all Max 8s because of “new evidence collected at the site”. But this is clearly not the case and smacks of a coverup. The reason the FAA grounded the MAX 8s was because more than 40 other countries around the world had already banned the model from their airspace, leaving the United States as the lone holdout defending the interests of giant corporations over the safety of its passengers. Naturally, the FAA’s conduct in this matter has caused tremendous reputational damage. As the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, James Hall, said in an op-ed in the New York Times last week, the FAA’s performance has caused a “profound crisis of public confidence”… “The F.A.A. used to lead the world in air safety; today it is bringing up the rear,” he added.
That aircraft safety has taken a backseat to corporate profits during the Trump era, should surprise no one. President Trump has made no effort to conceal his contempt for regulations or “do-goodie” consumer advocates. This is why his economics team is loaded with former Wall Street executives and crackpot “trickle downers” rather than respected economists with years of government experience. As for the FAA, that post has been temporarily filled by Daniel K. Elwell whose background should have precluded him from getting anywhere near the agency. Check out this short blurb on Elwell from an article in the Washington Examiner:
“…For more than 15 years, Elwell has worked as an industry lobbyist. While working as managing director for government affairs at American Airlines, he lobbied Congress on everything from spending on the Iraq War to the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. Eventually, he landed a job as a senior vice president with Airlines for America which just so happens to be the largest trade group representing almost all of the nation’s major airlines….
Why does any of this matter so long as planes take off and land safely? Well for starters, it means that an aviation lobbyist…is now regulating the aviation industry.” (“The Swamp earns its Wings”, Washington Examiner)
And here’s more background from an article by Dana Milbank at the Washington Post:
“That corporations make safety decisions for Trump isn’t surprising. The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration is formerly of American Airlines and of the Aerospace Industries Association, of which Boeing is a prominent member. Trump is expected to nominate a former Delta Air Lines executive for the top FAA job. His acting defense secretary is a former Boeing executive….
In Trump’s broader corporatocracy, a former oil-industry lobbyist acts as interior secretary, a former pharmaceutical executive is health and human services secretary, and a former coal lobbyist runs the Environmental Protection Agency. Fully 350 former lobbyists work, have worked or have been tapped to work in the administration.” (“This is what happens when corporations run the government”, Washington Post)
When lobbyists run the regulatory agencies, everyone is at greater risk. But does that mean that something could have been done to save the lives of the more than 300 passengers who died in the recent airline crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia?
Probably, after all, at least five pilots had voiced their concerns about the planes performance on a confidential FAA hotline that was used for troubleshooting mechanical or other problems. These concerns were expressed even before the first crash in Indonesia which means that the FAA was aware of the problems with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. The MCAS is the stalling-avoidance system that detects when the MAX 8s are nosing up. Sensors compute when this dangerous condition is occurring and automatically push the nose down which can send the aircraft hurtling towards earth. Both airline crashes appear to be linked to this faulty software system which should have prompted the FAA to ground the fleet even earlier.
On Friday, the international president of the Transport Workers Union of America, John Samuelsen, was interviewed on CNBC’s Squawk Box where he gave a damning indictment of the FAA’s role in the recent crashes. Here’s what he said:
John Samuelsen– ” Boeing was allowed by the FAA to put a plane into service without even telling the pilots there was a MCAS system in place that could override their skill and nosedive a plane and cause a catastrophe.
CNBC host–You mean when the plane was originally put into service?
John Samuelsen,– Absolutely. So how does the FAA allow a company like Boeing to put a plane into service that has an override device that could nosedive a plane and cause mass loss of life which is exactly what happened.
CNBC host– And you think the FAA is in cahoots with Boeing?
John Samuelsen,– I think the FAA has an unhealthy, incestuous relationship with both the manufacturers and the airline industry, and I think there are examples of that that go beyond these two accidents. … When you get on a plane you probably don’t even realize that plane was probably overhauled or maintained in South America or China rather than on US soil by mechanics making a good blue collar wage. So in the lust for profits, the airline industry is driving all this work overseas. It’s very dangerous for us and eventually its going to end up in a catastrophic event.
CNBC host — So you believe that the safety work that is being done on these aircrafts outside the US is actually not safe?
John Samuelsen –I believe its far less safe than work that’s done on US soil. And I offer this as just another example of the FAA’s incestuous relationship with the industry and the manufacturers. They’re interested in profits. and when the FAA thinks they work for the industry and not the American people, it’s a problem and it calls for congressional oversight.” (“It’s ‘common sense’ to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8, transportation expert says”, CNBC, Squawk Box)
Samuelsen is certainly right in faulting the industry for its outsourcing practices. A recent interview on Democracy Now reveals that routine aircraft maintenance has become something of a joke, that there is very little oversight over maintenance at all. Here’s a clip from an interview with William McGee, who is an aviation journalist for Consumer Reports.
William McGee: “The bottom line is that the entire model of how the airline industry works in the United States has been changed dramatically in the last 15 years or so. All airlines in the United States—without question, all of them—in 2019, outsource some or most or just about all of their maintenance, what they call heavy maintenance. Much of it is done outside of the United States—El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, China, Singapore. Again, we’re talking about U.S. airlines. And although the FAA, on paper, says there is one standard for maintenance of U.S. airlines, the reality is there isn’t. There are waivers given all the time, so that when work is done outside the United States, there are waivers so that there are no security background checks, there are no alcohol and drug screening programs put in place. And, in fact, many—in some cases, most—of the technicians cannot even be called mechanics, because they’re not licensed. They’re not licensed as they’re required to be in the U.S. So, basically, you have two sets of rules. You have one that’s for in-house airline employees and another for the outsourced facilities. And this all leads back to the FAA. I have sat in a room with FAA senior officials and asked them about this, and they say that they don’t think it’s a problem. It is a problem.” (“Ralph Nader’s Grandniece Died in Ethiopian Plane Crash; Now He Is Urging Boycott of Boeing Jet”, Democracy Now)
Naturally, all of this new information is going to undermine confidence in the airlines and the FAA. But while cost-cutting measures on maintenance is serious, it doesn’t rise to the level of criminal negligence which could be the case with the Indonesia and Ethiopia disasters. If the manufacturers or the FAA had first-hand knowledge that MAX 8 contained (as Samuelsen says) “an override device that could nosedive a plane and cause mass loss of life”, then serious charges are likely to be filed against some very important people.
Mary Schiavo, who is the former inspector general at the U.S. Department of Transportation, has been particularly harsh in her criticism of the FAA’s “symbiotic” relationship with Boeing. In an interview on CNN last week, Schiavo said the following:
CNN: You and I spoke 24 hours ago and I asked you then why the U.S. had not grounded the Boeing 737 explains. Now it’s done just that. But the U.S. was the last country to do so. What changed the FAA’s mind so suddenly and why did it take so long to reach that conclusion?
SCHIAVO: Well,…. there had been complaints in the United States by U.S. pilots concerning this plane before the Ethiopia crash and before the Indonesia crash….And then, also there was — it was revealed that the FAA says the Boeing was supposed to make changes by April. But the infighting revealed that it wasn’t decided what those changes should be…..
CNN– ..As you say, officially, the FAA has identified the similarities between the Ethiopia and Indonesia crashes and that’s why they were grounded… But wasn’t that exactly why other countries did that? So why gamble with the lives of passengers?…
SCHIAVO: Well, you are exactly right. That’s what the Federal Administration was doing with the lives of American passengers. Because we were the last, they were just betting that even though they didn’t know how to fix the plane and they didn’t really know what caused the second crash, they were just gambling that it wouldn’t happen a third time before somebody figured out what to do. And that was totally unacceptable….”
(“CNN Newsroom with Rosemary Church”, CNN)
If what Schiavo says is correct, then the FAA had identified the problem but failed to do anything about it. They allowed the airlines to continue flying the same model 737 MAX 8 knowing that another crash could take place at any time killing everyone on board. If that’s not criminal negligence, then what is?