U.S. re­sponse shakes its avi­a­tion safety stature

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­THONY FAIOLA

The mud­dled re­sponse by U.S. reg­u­la­tors and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to the safety risks of the Boe­ing 737 Max is rais­ing fresh doubt not only about the in­ter­na­tional air­wor­thi­ness of a jet­liner — but also of Amer­i­can lead­er­ship.

Around the globe, the U.S. Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion for decades rep­re­sented the gold stan­dard for air safety — a reg­u­la­tor whose de­ci­sions, par­tic­u­larly on Amer­i­can-made air­craft, boosted the con­fi­dence of plane trav­el­ers in New York, Mi­ami and Los An­ge­les, as well as Lon­don, Rio de Janeiro and Bei­jing.

Yet since Sun­day’s Ethiopian Air­lines crash shortly af­ter take­off — the sec­ond 737 Max to go down in less than five months — for­eign ob­servers have watched Wash­ing­ton’s han­dling of the cri­sis with mount­ing alarm. Crit­ics at home and abroad are blam­ing, at best, er­ratic de­ci­sion-mak­ing and, at worst, do­mes­tic com­mer­cial in­ter­ests, for what many of them de­cry as a flawed U.S. re­ac­tion.

“Pro­tec­tion of pas­sen­gers is what the FAA is there for. Be­yond any con­sid­er­a­tion, it’s safety, safety, safety. And tra­di­tion­ally, the FAA has been the best in the world,” said El­mar Giemulla, a pro­fes­sor of avi­a­tion law at the Ber­lin Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in Ger­many. “But now, this has been spoiled.”

Af­ter Sun­day’s crash, the FAA de­fended the 737 Max un­til re­vers­ing course Wed­nes­day, two days af­ter China led a host of na­tions in ground­ing the jet­lin­ers. Pres­i­dent Trump, mean­while, fired off ram­bling tweets about new­fan­gled planes be­fore pre­empt­ing his own reg­u­la­tors and an­nounc­ing the U.S. de­ci­sion to fi­nally ground the air­craft based on new ev­i­dence that showed sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Sun­day’s crash in Africa and that of an­other 737 Max crash in In­done­sia in Oc­to­ber.

The out­come, crit­ics say, has un­der­mined Amer­i­can cred­i­bil­ity as the pace­set­ter for global air­craft stan­dards, while po­ten­tially ush­er­ing in an era in which in­ter­na­tional reg­u­la­tors — par­tic­u­larly those in China and Europe — as­sert grow­ing clout.

This time, the FAA “just looked idi­otic,” said Mary Schi­avo, a former in­spec­tor gen­eral of the U.S. Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment. Not­ing that Ethiopia has de­cided to send black boxes re­cov­ered from Sun­day’s crash to France rather than the United States for anal­y­sis, she added, “There is no way this doesn’t erode con­fi­dence in Amer­i­can avi­a­tion reg­u­la­tion and Amer­i­can lead­er­ship.”

Giemulla said the de­lays in Wash­ing­ton have re­in­forced fears that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is com­pro­mis­ing the work of gov­ern­ment agen­cies and ex­perts in def­er­ence to the wishes of big com­pa­nies such as Boe­ing.

“It fits the im­pres­sion that the world out­side the U.S. has of Don­ald Trump,” he said.

For some, the events of this week harked back to the in­ter­na­tional dis­trust of Amer­i­can fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tors that sur­faced af­ter a toxic melt­down on Wall Street sparked the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis a decade ago. Yet it also fu­eled fur­ther con­cern over what crit­ics call the reck­less­ness of a Trump era driven by edicts via Twit­ter, im­promptu trade wars and the on-again, off-again de­tente with North Korea.

Per­haps nowhere was U.S. lead­er­ship on avi­a­tion safety be­ing ques­tioned more than in China, the first coun­try to ground the 737 Max.

A top Chi­nese reg­u­la­tor said his agency made its de­ci­sion be­cause the FAA and Boe­ing had not pro­vided China with sat­is­fac­tory an­swers about the air­plane’s soft­ware and safety is­sues af­ter the first 737 Max crash — of Lion Air Flight 610 in In­done­sia that killed all 189 pas­sen­gers and crew.

Li Jian, deputy direc­tor of the Civil Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion of China, sug­gested that the FAA was re­luc­tant to take strong mea­sures against the 737 Max.

“They have had dif­fi­culty mak­ing a de­ci­sion, so we took the lead,” Li told re­porters on Mon- day.

China’s move trig­gered a cas­cade of ac­tion by other coun­tries, in­clud­ing Bri­tain, Canada and mem­bers of the Euro­pean Union, which fol­lowed suit within 48 hours.

Chi­nese of­fi­cials prob­a­bly wel­comed the op­por­tu­nity to es­tab­lish their lead­er­ship cre­den­tials at an in­flec­tion point in the coun­try’s avi­a­tion his­tory, an­a­lysts said. China’s civil avi­a­tion mar­ket is ex­pected to eclipse that of the United States in three years.

“As China grows, as its avi­a­tion grows both as a mar­ket and man­u­fac­turer, as its prod­ucts and tech­nol­ogy de­velop, it’s ob­vi­ously the in­ten­tion of the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to take on more and more global lead­er­ship,” said Guo Yufeng, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Q&A Con­sult­ing firm in Guangzhou.

In Europe, sev­eral avi­a­tion of­fi­cials, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss the process by which jets are grounded, said they tra­di­tion­ally look to the FAA for guid­ance on U.S.-built planes.

And for days, they stuck to that. As re­cently as Tues­day morn­ing, reg­u­la­tors in some na­tions in Europe is­sued state­ments stand­ing by the U.S. de­ci­sion to keep the 737 Max fly­ing.

But within hours, Euro­pean of­fi­cials made a dif­fer­ent de­ter­mi­na­tion, prompted in part by new satel­lite in­for­ma­tion — ev­i­dence the United States would not act on un­til later in the day Wed­nes­day.

“Avi­a­tion safety is our num­ber one pri­or­ity & the EU is tak­ing ev­ery step to en­sure the safety of pas­sen­gers,” wrote the top E.U. of­fi­cial in charge of trans­porta­tion, Vi­o­leta Bulc, on Twit­ter.

The in­ter­na­tional out­cry was not uni­ver­sal. Few, for ex­am­ple, in Ja­pan and South Korea ap­peared to chal­lenge U.S. man­age­ment of the cri­sis. But from Canada to China to the Mid­dle East, a so­cial me­dia storm erupted over the ero­sion of Amer­i­can cred­i­bil­ity.

“Smart friends of mine have pointed out the re­ac­tions to 737 MAX might be in­flec­tion point for US hege­mony,” tweeted Cana­dian scholar Stephen Saide­man. “China says no to MAX, FAA says don’t worry, EU closes airspace. So much for US lead­er­ship.”

In Brazil, the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the 737 Max even be­fore Sun­day’s crash was not so much a re­jec­tion of U.S. lead­er­ship as an at­tempt to func­tion in its ab­sence. When the Max mod­els were first in­tro­duced, for in­stance, Brazil ig­nored an FAA de­ci­sion not to re­quire ad­di­tional pi­lot train­ing for the air­craft’s soft­ware, in­stead de­ter­min­ing that such train­ing was in fact needed.

On March 11, In­dia’s civil avi­a­tion reg­u­la­tor first an­nounced that any pi­lot fly­ing the 737 Max must have a min­i­mum of 1,000 hours of ex­pe­ri­ence and re­served the right to im­pose other re­stric­tions based on in­for­ma­tion re­ceived from the FAA and Boe­ing.

But as other coun­tries grounded the planes en­tirely, In­dia’s avi­a­tion reg­u­la­tor — which even­tu­ally grounded the air­craft Tues­day night — faced grow­ing crit­i­cism for its own de­layed re­ac­tion. Crit­ics there said the fact that the FAA was even slower to re­act un­der­mined its role as a decider in such crises.

“We all live by their rules,” said Nee­lam Mathews, a vet­eran avi­a­tion jour­nal­ist based in New Delhi. “It’s very dis­ap­point­ing the way the FAA re­acted.”

By Wed­nes­day, the last ma­jor hold­out — be­sides the United States — was Canada.

As other coun­tries grounded the planes, Ot­tawa stood with Wash­ing­ton.

That changed Wed­nes­day morn­ing. With do­mes­tic pres­sure grow­ing, Cana­dian Trans­port Min­is­ter Marc Garneau switched course, just hours ahead of Trump, cit­ing “new ev­i­dence.”

Cana­dian re­porters pressed him on whether the United States had pres­sured Canada to keep the planes in the air. He said it had not.

Hours later, Trump an­nounced the United States was also ground­ing the planes.

“We’re do­ing it al­most as a si­mul­ta­ne­ous thing. Be­cause we were co­or­di­nat­ing with Canada. We were giv­ing them in­for­ma­tion, they were giv­ing us in­for­ma­tion, and we very much work in con­junc­tion with Canada,” he said. Michael Birn­baum in Brus­sels, Si­mon Denyer in Tokyo, Rachelle Kry­gier in Mi­ami, Ma­rina Lopes in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Shibani Mah­tani and Stan­ley Wid­ianto in Jakarta, Emily Rauhala in Wash­ing­ton, Gerry Shih in Bei­jing, Joanna Slater in New Delhi and Griff Witte in Ber­lin con­trib­uted to this re­port.

“Pro­tec­tion of pas­sen­gers is what the FAA is there for. . . . And tra­di­tion­ally, the FAA has been the best in the world. But now, this has been spoiled.” El­mar Giemulla, pro­fes­sor of avi­a­tion law at the Ber­lin Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy

JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TOP: An Amer­i­can Air­lines Boe­ing 737 Max 8 flight from Los An­ge­les lands at Rea­gan Na­tional Air­port on Wed­nes­day, shortly af­ter the United States an­nounced it was ground­ing the planes. See a video of pas­sen­gers re­act­ing to the de­ci­sion at wapo.st/boe­ing0315. ABOVE: In this im­age taken from video, of­fi­cials on Tues­day in­spect the cock­pit of a Boe­ing 737 Max 8 air­craft in Jakarta, In­done­sia.

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