As mentioned in two previous reports—a long one, and a short one—some things are known, and many are not, about the horrific crash this past weekend outside Addis Ababa, in which all 157 people aboard a new-model Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max were killed.
- One thing that’s known: This is the second crash of this kind of plane within the past five months, following the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last year.
- One thing that’s not known: whether the two crashes are related, which would suggest a disastrous system flaw with the 737 Max and its software.
Just this afternoon—minutes ago as I type, four days after the Ethiopian crash— aviation authorities in the United States and Canada joined their counterparts in Europe and Asia in grounding the 737 Max fleet. This is until more is known about whether the crashes are connected and whether there is something systematically wrong with the plane.
The FAA has grounded airliners before: for instance, the 787 Dreamliner soon after its introduction, in 2013, because of onboard lithium-battery fires, and the DC-10 in 1979, after a crash that killed 273 people and that remains the deadliest aviation accident in U.S. history. Both types of airliners were cleared relatively soon to fly again. (In the 787’s case, with a redesigned battery compartment, and for the DC-10, after an investigation found that the crash was not caused by any basic design flaws. The 787 is an ongoing commercial success, and the DC-10 remained in production until the late 1980s.)
What will happen with the 737 Max? At this point, again, no one knows—or has said publicly. As a practical matter, grounding all Boeing 737s would have an enormous effect on world air travel, since they’re the most popular airliners on Earth, with a production run of well over 10,000. Although more than 5,000 orders have been placed for the 737 Max series, only a few hundred of them have gone into service, fewer than 100 with U.S. carriers. Most airlines can cancel those Max flights without fundamentally disrupting their service.
Was the FAA right to act now? Was it right to wait as long as it did? The minute-by-minute choices that organizations and their leaders are making in real time—Boeing itself, the crash investigators from the U.S. and Europe, the FAA and other civil-aviation authorities, the airlines, and others—will be studied for a very long time, and will have enormous reputational (in addition to safety-related) consequences.
By which I mean: The astonishingly good safety record of the world’s commercial air-travel system over the past generation has earned most of the system’s members the benefit of the doubt on safety judgments. Between 2010 and 2019, exactly one person died in a crash on a U.S. passenger airline. (That was the person killed on a Southwest flight in 2018, when an engine exploded and the debris hit her window.) Three other people died in a crash at San Francisco International Airport in 2013, when a captain flying for the Korean carrier Asiana badly misjudged a landing.
By comparison: About 100 Americans die every day in car crashes, and a similar number from gunshots, and a larger number from opioids and other drugs. The culture of safety within commercial air travel is a real thing, and it is a credit to all components of the system: the aircraft companies, the airlines (yes, despite our grumblings as passengers), the dispatchers and air-traffic controllers, the weather forecasters, the flight crews and ground-maintenance operators, and even the regulators.
Thus I have presumptively given the FAA the benefit of the doubt on its calls. But when this is over, we’ll know what factors the FAA was weighing these past few days. Was it right in resisting a panicky instant reaction? Or was it being politically, nationalistically, or commercially swayed? (That is, was it trying to go improperly soft on America’s leading exporter, which also happens to be a major player in all Washington, D.C., lobbying wars?) No one knows this at the moment. We will know, at some point.
Every choice made by Boeing, the FAA, and others involved in this tragedy and drama will eventually become known. Awareness that any harmful incident will be painstakingly reconstructed is itself an important part of the aviation-safety culture. (Before considering a flight in dicey conditions in our little single-engine propeller plane, my wife, Deb, and I would ask ourselves: “How would this look in the NTSB report?” That is, if something went wrong, what would they say about “the danger signs the pilot ignored,” etc.?)
Boeing, like Airbus, has earned trust for decades’ worth of safe decisions. The FAA, like most of its counterparts, has earned similar trust for its safety-mindedness—despite endless grievances from pilots, airlines, and aircraft companies about aspects of FAA bureaucracy. If either Boeing or the FAA is making the wrong choices now, the airline-safety culture will certainly recover—but their reputation and credibility might not, for a very long time.
While the fundamentals remain unknown, here are some relevant primary documents. They come from an underpublicized but extremely valuable part of the aviation-safety culture. This is a program called ASRS, or Aviation Safety Reporting System, which has been run by NASA since the 1970s. That it is run by NASA—and not the regulator-bosses at the FAA—is a fundamental virtue of this system. Its motto is “Confidential. Voluntary. Nonpunitive.”
The ASRS system is based on the idea that anyone involved in aviation—pilots, controllers, ground staff, anyone—can file a report of situations that seemed worrisome, in confidence that the information will not be used against them. Pilots are conditioned to treat the FAA warily, and to make no admissions against interest that might be used again them. What if I confess that I violated an altitude clearance or busted a no-fly zone, and they take away my certificate? But they’ve learned to trust NASA in handling this information and using it to point out emerging safety problems. I’ve filed half a dozen ASRS reports over the years, when I’ve made a mistake or seen someone else doing so.