The U.S. versus the world: Politics cloud the Boeing Max disasters

Let’s unpack Donald Trump’s tweets about aviation, he being a noted aviation expert, of course. He actually owned an airline, the Trump Shuttle, for three years before it went belly up, financially speaking, in 1992. But that’s another story.

The president’s two tweets came on Tuesday, the day after the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft outside of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 passengers and crew on board. The tragedy came five months after the same type of aircraft, one owned by Indonesia’s Lion Air, went down in the Java Sea, killing all 189 aboard. Since the Ethiopian crash, the best-selling 737 Max has been grounded pretty much everywhere, bar the United States. After initially saying the plane could continue to fly, the Canadian government reversed course on Wednesday and banned it from Canadian airspace.

Mr. Trump’s tweets did not mention either accident, nor did he mention the groundings or offer condolences to the victims. What he did, rather subtly so, was to inject another dose of politics into the twin disasters as airlines, governments and aviation authorities assembled into groups buying into Boeing’s assurances that the plane is safe and those who are not, notably the Chinese and European aviation authorities. Outside observers can be forgiven for thinking this is becoming a geopolitical tale pitting the United States against the rest of the world.

In his tweets, Mr. Trump said that aircraft technology is becoming excessively complex. He may have a point, but that’s not the point. He finished his second tweet by saying “I want great professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!” The implication is that the crashes – the events that triggered his tweets – may have been the result of unprofessional piloting.

In effect, Mr. Trump was coming to the defence of Boeing even as prominent U.S. lawmakers, among them senators Dianne Feinstein, Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney (the latter two being Republicans), called for the 737 Max planes to be grounded. Two of the largest unions representing flight attendants also called for the planes to be removed from service until investigations can determine what caused the crashes.

The global response to the air disasters certainly comes with political overtones. Take the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). For decades, the widely respected FAA has taken the lead on aviation safety, with other aviation authorities working with it on crash investigations. The FAA has a close relationship with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

But looked what happened – the safety regulators split. The FAA refused to ground the 737 Max, saying on Tuesday that, “Thus far, our review shows no systematic performance issue.” Normally, the EASA and other regulators would follow suit and keep the plane flying. But they didn’t. China diverted its attention from the trade war with the White House to ground the planes, becoming the first country to do so, a move that sent Boeing shares plummeting. Many other countries, including Britain, Singapore and Australia quickly followed China’s lead.

By Wednesday afternoon, the plane was virtually absent from the skies, except over America. “What we’re looking at here is almost a rebellion against the FAA,” Jeffries International aerospace analyst Sandy Morris told Bloomberg. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen this happen.”

The rebellion apparently continued on Wednesday, when the Ethiopian Airlines boss Tewolde GebreMariam raised the possibility of sending the black-box data recorders retrieved from the crash site to Europe for analysis rather than the United States. His explanation that a European delivery would save crucial time made no sense, given that crash investigations can take months. Boeing placed the American-made boxes into an American-made plane, so why would they not go the United States unless some political game was being played?

There is no doubt that U.S. aviation has a superb safety record, especially in recent years. In 2017, there were no commercial aviation-related deaths in the United States, which Mr. Trump took credit for, insisting in a tweet that “Since taking office I have been very strict on commercial aviation” even though he had been in office for only a year. So why isn’t he being “very strict” today by erring on the side of caution and backing 737 Max flight suspensions?

It could be that he has supreme confidence in the FAA and its safety standards. But it is also known that the Trump administration has deep ties to Boeing, to the point he personally received assurances from Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg on Tuesday that the plane was safe and should not be grounded, according to The New York Times. When Mr. Trump ousted defence secretary James Mattis in December, Patrick Shanahan came in as his acting replacement. Mr. Shanahan, who was deputy defence secretary, had spent 30 years as a Boeing executive.

A former Boeing lobbyist serves as staff director of the Senate’s commerce, science and transportation committee, which is to hold hearings on aviation safety, and Boeing is routinely a top ten spender on lobbyists seeking influence in Congress and the White House. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics said that Boeing spent US$15.1-million on lobbying last year. Meanwhile, Boeing is winning billions of dollars in defence contracts. Mr. Trump has floated the idea of the Pentagon loading up the air force with new Boeing-made fighter jets.

The United States is now isolated in its defence of keeping the plane airborne as the sad story of the two crashes took on a world-versus-United States tone. It may be months before we know which side was being overly or underly cautious.

Follow Eric Reguly on Twitter @ereguly

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