It is a daily miracle that the general public accept the existence of the aviation industry.
Every day, about 100,000 flights take off and fly between towns and cities around the world, each carrying fuel with the stored energy of a cruise missile jammed up alongside scores of families, tourists, business people and pets. That we tolerate and even welcome this state of affairs is a tribute to the generations of engineers and administrators — and regulators — who have made travelling by air safer than driving the car to the mall.
It’s tempting to declare that the vast and complex infrastructure undergirding the safety of modern aviation is unnecessary, as Donald Trump argued on Twitter yesterday.
Ultimately, though, this infrastructure supports the rock-solid reputation of the aviation industry. In continuing to stand squarely behind the Boeing 737 Max 8 while its peer regulators take a more precautionary approach, the US Federal Aviation Administration risks squandering that.
That is not only the view of this columnist. It is also the opinion of Ray LaHood, the former US Secretary of Transportation who grounded the 787 Dreamliner after fires in its lithium-ion battery packs in 2013.
“The flying public has to be assured that these planes are safe, and they don’t feel that way now,” he said yesterday. “The secretary of transportation should announce today that these planes will be grounded until there is 100 per cent assurance from Boeing that these planes are safe to fly because unless they can give that assurance, they’re not holding up their promise to be the top safety agency in the US.”
Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority became yesterday the latest national air regulator to ground the Max 8 in the wake of Sunday’s crash of Ethiopian Airlines Group Flight 302. Authorities in China, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and Malaysia have already made the move. With the British move affecting Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA and TUI AG, two of the biggest airlines still operating the 737 Max outside the US, the time for the FAA to get on board is overdue.
LaHood’s experience is instructive. At the time, the 123-day grounding of the Dreamliner was seen as a potential disaster for Boeing, potentially costing hundreds of millions of dollars and resulting in delays and cancellations of orders. In the end, the costs proved to be “minimal”, according to the company, burnished away by insurance coverage and the magic of programme accounting, as my colleague Chris Bryant has written.
Indeed, the baptism by fire experienced by the Dreamliner has allowed the plane’s real virtues to shine through. With the battery problem fixed, it has emerged as a popular and fuel-efficient aircraft with an excellent safety record. Airlines have rushed to buy more, and the model already has more firm orders from customers than the 1,300 targeted at the time of its grounding.
That’s a lesson to the FAA. European regulators are readying to follow Britain in grounding 737 Max models there, a person familiar with the matter told Christopher Jasper of Bloomberg News yesterday. Indonesia’s Lion Air, the carrier affected by the plane’s October crash, is planning to switch its $22 billion order to Airbus SE models instead, a separate person familiar with that proposal earlier told Bloomberg.
While other regulators and companies take action, the credibility of the FAA in holding out is teetering. US transport agencies promise only to act on the basis of “substantial evidence”, but there is clearly sufficient evidence already for a reasonable person to want to pause flights until there is a clearer understanding of what is behind these crashes.
A full investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board would provide the most solid findings, but passengers cannot be expected to wait for the year or so that such a report would take, according to LaHood.
“You can’t wait a year. This needs to be dealt with immediately,” he said. “This is the most important thing the Department of Transportation can do, to protect people in all modes of transport.”
As my colleague Chris Bryant has written, nothing less than total transparency will deal with this problem now. When a criminal laced Tylenol-branded painkillers with cyanide in 1982, the safety-first approach taken by Johnson & Johnson won back the faith of customers and in the process launched a thousand crisis-management textbooks. The FAA and Boeing need to demonstrate that they, too, put no priority above safety — and fast.
• David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and The Guardian