The Boeing logo is seen on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplane in Long Beach, California. Picture: REUTERS
The Boeing logo is seen on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplane in Long Beach, California. Picture: REUTERS

It’s an accepted norm in aviation that when there is a decision to be made about grounding aircraft, it should normally come from the home regulating authority of the manufacturer.

In the case of the Boeing 737 Max 8 that crashed in Ethiopia last weekend, killing all 157 people on board, that would have been the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US. For days after the disaster, the FAA did not do that, while Boeing vouched for the safety of the aircraft.

While countries such as China and Indonesia, together with Ethiopia, almost immediately banned the model, most Western nations kept flying them, before the UK broke ranks, to be joined later by a number of other European nations. They, along with Comair, which initially said it would keep flying its 737 Max 8 before bowing to public pressure, were probably following this convention. They were, rightly, waiting for guidance from the main regulator and evidence of a link between that crash in Ethiopia and another deadly accident in Indonesia less than five months earlier.

In simple terms, this is a system that should be underpinned by one word: trust. And news coming out over the weekend is more than disturbing. It should be noted that the Trump administration did not ground the planes until Wednesday, March 13, while other countries had been moving to ban them the previous two days, with the US still insisting that they were sound. Even then, the US suggested the decision was more to do with psychology than a conviction that something was wrong with the planes. 

Much has been said about the Trump administration’s aversion to regulation of everything from finance to polluting industries. This, after all, is a president who does not believe in climate change.

The US is not the only country in the world where there is a worrying trend of individuals moving from companies and then working for organisations that are charged with regulating their former employers, or vice versa. That may not sound as something to be alarmed about when it’s about taxation, for example. But when it comes to a life and death issue such as flying, it is very worrying indeed.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the acting head of the FAA used to work for American Airlines and the Aerospace Industries Association, which counts Boeing among its most important members. And reports over the weekend questioning the independence of the FAA will only add to the unease.

We must be clear that this is not about Donald Trump. A report by Bloomberg on Monday said that as far back as 2012, FAA employees were warning that Boeing had too much say over safety approvals of new planes. That, the news agency reported, led to a government probe that found the FAA hadn’t done enough to “hold Boeing accountable” and that some employees had complained of retribution if they spoke out.

The Seattle Times published the results of its own investigation on Sunday, which found that the regulator had delegated much of the safety assessment of the 737 Max to the company itself and pressured safety engineers to speedily approve the resulting analysis. The original safety analysis delivered to the FAA for a new flight control system on the Max planes, which was used to certify the plane as safe, had crucial flaws. That flight control system, according to the newspaper, is now under scrutiny after the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

In an early sign that trust has been broken, Ethiopia said last week it would ask European, rather than American, experts to analyse the black boxes from the crashed plane. The country’s transport minister said at a press conference on Sunday that there had been “clear similarities” with the crash in Indonesia in October 2018. A preliminary report will be released within 30 days, she said.

There are so many areas in which the US has given up its leadership role in recent years. Aviation looks like the latest one.