President Donald Trump issues order to ground Boeing 737 Max 8 after crashes

John Fritze and David Jackson and Donovan Slack

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that his administration had grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8 planes involved in two catastrophic crashes, hours after the United States became the last country to do so.

"Those planes are grounded effective immediately," Trump told reporters at the White House. "The safety of the American people, of all people, is our paramount concern."

The United States was the last holdout on grounding the aircraft after Canada on Wednesday joined a growing list of nations that included China, Britain, France and Germany to make the call following an Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday that killed 157 people.

The Federal Aviation Administration previously stood by the safety of the plane, saying it hadn't found any issues to merit a grounding order. In a statement issued after Trump's remarks, the FAA said the administration was reversing course based on "the data gathering process and new evidence collected at the site." 

'Psychological' factor 

Trump, who said he felt the move was important "psychologically," said the decision applied to the 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft. Trump also said he was confident Boeing would get to the bottom of the problem. 

In a statement, Boeing said it "continues to have full confidence in the safety" of its airplanes, but agreed with the government's decision "out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety."

Sunday's crash in Ethiopia followed an Oct. 29, 2018, crash of Lion Air Flight 610, in which 189 passengers and crew died when it plunged into the Java Sea off Indonesia. Both flights crashed after experiencing drastic speed fluctuations during ascent, with their pilots trying to return to ground after takeoff.

In its emergency order, the FAA cited information from the wreckage concerning the aircraft's "configuration after takeoff" and "newly refined data from satellite-based tracking of the aircraft's path" that indicates "similarities" between the two crashes.

Canada’s Transport Minister, Marc Garneau, pointed to satellite tracking data of the Ethiopian Airlines flight to explain why his country decided to ground the aircraft Wednesday. Virginia-based Aireon, a company that tracks global air traffic using satellites, said it provided that data to Trump administration officials at their request.

“We cannot comment on the cause of the tragedy or the outcome of the investigation, only that we have provided the data,” the company said in a statement.

President Donald Trump smiles as he walks on the South Lawn after stepping off Marine One at the White House, March 10, 2019, in Washington.

The fleet of 737 Max 8 and Max 9 planes began flying two years ago and already includes 74 aircraft in the U.S. and almost 400 worldwide. Airlines have ordered more than 4,500 of the jetliners, the newest version of the 737 line.

Mike Slack, a pilot and lawyer who has represented passengers and family members in crash cases, said Trump had little choice. Allowing the planes to fly would have gambled jobs – and American lives – and raised questions for the administration and Boeing.  

“Is this about protecting Boeing competitively against Airbus, its primary competitor? And why would Boeing’s CEO be calling the president of the United States?” said Slack, a former NASA engineer. “That’s not good form when the background story is already that the FAA is not acting.”

The FAA grounded the Boeing 787 in 2013 after fires were sparked by its battery system, one in flight and one on the ground. United Airlines was the only U.S. carrier flying the Dreamliner at the time. The FAA ban lasted more than three months and was lifted after Boeing made modifications to the battery systems.

In 1979, the FAA grounded the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 following a fatal American Airlines crash in Chicago. The flight from Chicago to Los Angeles crashed after takeoff, killing 271 passengers and crew and two people on the ground.  

Trump-Boeing relationship

The decision came as the FAA and the White House were facing questions from several quarters about why the U.S. was the only country that had not grounded the plane.

Chicago-based Boeing, like many large U.S. firms, spends millions of dollars each year on lobbying the administration and making campaign contributions. The defense contractor spent $15 million on lobbying last year, disclosure reports show, more than brands such as Amazon and ExxonMobil. The company contributed $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee, according to Federal Election Commission records. 

Boeing's chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, had also made a concerted effort to build relationships at the White House, meeting with Trump several times after the 2016 election to smooth over a dispute that erupted when the then-candidate questioned the estimated cost of the company's design for a new Air Force One fleet.  

Experts said there was no indication those efforts had any impact on the FAA's delay. The agency said it initially held back from grounding the planes because data it had at the time did not support such a decision.

A spokesman for Boeing did not respond to a request for comment.  

"They're really good at capturing defense contracts," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at Teal Group and an aviation consultant. "But there's absolutely no evidence that there's anything untoward" with the the FAA's initial decision.

Trump continued to praise the company in his remarks Wednesday. 

"It's a great, great company with a track record that is so phenomenal," Trump told reporters. "And they want this solved; they want it solved quickly." 

 Contributing: Bart Jansen, John Bacon and Dawn Gilbertson

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: President Donald Trump issues order to ground Boeing 737 Max 8 after crashes