FAA is a conspicuous outlier on Boeing's 737 Max 8

The Editorial Board

We don't know yet what caused Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 to crash on Sunday, killing all 157 on board, or whether there's a common link to October's crash of Indonesia's Lion Air Flight 610, which claimed 189 lives.

But the eerie similarities — both involved  Boeing's new 737 Max 8 jetliners plunging to the ground shortly after takeoff — suggest the prudent course is to ground the 737 Max fleet until more is known.

More than 30 countries, including China and European Union nations, have already reached this sensible conclusion. As of Tuesday night, however, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates U.S. air travel, was a conspicuous outlier. "Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft," said Acting FAA Administrator Daniel K. Elwell in a statement.

Perhaps not, but these facts are already known:

First, in an age when commercial jets are an almost unbelievably safe way to travel, it's exceedingly rare for a newly designed and marketed aircraft to suddenly fall out of the sky — much less to have that happen twice within five months.

Second, preliminary findings in the Lion Air crash showed that the pilots struggled against an automated flight control system that errantly forced the plane into a fatal dive. Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told CNN on Tuesday that pilots of Flight 302 also reported flight control problems.

Investigators with the U.S. National Transportation and Safety Board look over debris at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 12, 2019, in Bishoftu, Ethiopia.

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The automated system implicated in the Lion Air tragedy was created to counter changes in the 737 Max design. The planes are larger and longer than traditional 737s, equipped with bigger engines set differently on the wings. 

These design differences created a tendency for a 737 Max to pitch its nose up, risking a stall. The automated flight control system was intended to detect a stall and push the nose down to cause recovery. In the Lion Air crash, investigators believe a faulty sensor triggered this process, and  pilots fought  — and failed — to keep the plane aloft.

Pilots can disconnect the automated flight control, and it's unclear why that didn't happen in the Lion Air crash unless the pilots were untrained on the feature. The Ethiopian Airlines chief said his pilots were properly trained. Just the same, a potential software fix for the issue has been  pending from Boeing for months and won't be rolled out until next month.

Fewer than a hundred Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft are flown in the United States by American, Southwest and United airlines, so temporarily taking them out of service shouldn't cause enormous disruption. Among the voices calling for grounding the Max 8s are former Transportation Secretary  Ray LaHood and  Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. 

The history of U.S. aviation shows that when regulators become complacent, lax or too cozy with industry, tragedy can result.

In 1996, a ValuJet flight plunged into Florida's Everglades, killing 110 people and exposing a virtual collapse of safety regulation. And four years later, an Alaska Airlines crash killing 88 people revealed that the FAA had "failed miserably" in policing the airlines.

The Trump administration's Transportation Department has taken a generally passive approach toward airline regulation.

It's possible, of course, that the Lion and Ethiopian airline crashes are coincidental and unrelated. Black boxes from the Ethiopian crash have been located and might soon provide answers. 

In the meantime, why risk further loss of life?

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FAA is a conspicuous outlier on Boeing's 737 Max 8