Why the FAA is Right Not to Ground the 737 MAX, and Still Right if They Ground it Later

The world has learned more about the Boeing 737 MAX in the past couple of days than anyone likely ever expected, from the decision over its engines to the compensating programming that was determined to be necessary to prevent stalls.

And now that two aircraft have been lost in less than six months its natural to be very concerned about what this means for the aircraft program and for flying it as a passenger. There may be a very serious issue here, we’ll get indication of what happened to the Ethiopian Airlines aircraft soon as black boxes are examined.

Canada has grounded the Boeing 737 MAX, leaving the U.S. alone in the world in continuing to allow the aircraft to fly. It’s difficult to stand alone in the face of world pressure. It’s reasonable I think to believe that they’re doing the right thing, and reasonable to think that some other regulators may be doing right too.

In the Lion Air crash concerns were raised about the 737 MAX’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system pushing the plane’s nose down. Every 737 MAX pilot at this point knows about MCAS issues and how to disengage and fly manually, something that wasn’t done in the Lion Air incident and may not have occurred here (if indeed MCAS was at play).

The New York Times reported Chinese regulator comments yesterday that make a strong distinction between grounding the aircraft there (and I’d argue many other places) vs in the US,: they don’t trust their pilots to fly off auto pilot.

The Lion Air MAX wasn’t air worthy, didn’t have the ability to alert pilots that angle of attack sensors disagreed by 20 degrees (perhaps that shouldn’t be optional!). And we just don’t know enough yet about the Ethiopian crash to draw more than surface-level parallels.

Portraying the decision not to ground the aircraft, though, as kowtowing to Boeing (or to airlines operating the aircraft) as an economic one — profits over people — would be a mistake. Assume for a moment that despite tens of thousands of flights without incident operated by US airlines that there is a problem with the aircraft.

  • Is flying the MAX safer than driving?
  • Is it safer than taking connecting flights (two takeoffs and landings) to avoid the MAX?

There are real, safety-related, consequences to grounding an aircraft and decisions that passengers have to make as a result which may make them less safe. Grounding may turn out to be the right answer but it’s certainly not crazy to wait to see what the data from the Ethiopian Airlines flight reveals before making it.

At the same time a country like Australia banning the MAX when there are very few flights there? That seems like a low cost decision with far fewer safety-related tradeoffs.

I don’t have an issue with customers booking away from the aircraft. I find it absurd that American Airlines isn’t waiving change fees or difference in fare to rebook onto a non-MAX flight. Of course they refused to offer a travel waiver during the PSA meltdown in Charlotte last summer too wen thousands of flights were being cancelled and they didn’t initially have any fix at hand.

I’m grateful that the FAA’s initial decision not to ground the aircraft came before Boeing’s CEO called the President. I do generally trust the FAA, and the pilots operating these aircraft, to offer their best judgment here. Standing athwart regulators the world over who are taking the simple path (they’ll never get blamed for a car crash or incident on another aircraft type) isn’t easy. I just hope that new data would be what guides any shift in position.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The FAA dies not have safety as it’s primary goal. It is a slave to the airline and aircraft industries. The NTSB is a safety organization that I trust to make unbiased recommendations. The FAA, no way. And I am a commercial airline pilot in the USA

  2. I usually like your posts, but this one is just wrong and I could not disagree more.
    Also Trump announced he’s ordering the grounding of 737 Max planes.

  3. Gary, I have to disagree. Two crashes of the same type of plane, and the black boxes (FDR + CVR) of both planes have not yet been fully analyzed for common and other problems (probably just a few days away). It’s no doubt a short time to wait. If I was not a Delta Diamond (no MAX’s on Delta), and flying in the next few days or next week (I am), I’d bail on a flight on a MAX until the FDR/CVR data from both flights is substantially analyzed and reported by the NTSB.

    Yes, it’s also disturbing that there are apparently large numbers of commercial pilots flying non-US carriers that depend too much on automatic controls because their stated capabilities to fly without those controls are questioned by their own policymakers. Does not inspire confidence when flying those carriers (which I do)! Something to be said for being on a US carrier where pilots generally seem (to me – a former private pilot) to have the experience to fly heavy metal with only the most basic instruments, if necessary.

  4. Regardless the FAA grounding the model in the future this is a well thought and well written piece. Thanks @gary for coherently writing something like this. Are the two crashes related? That’s hard to tell before investigations are complete. But imagine the fallout (and the pushback) if a car model were ‘grounded’ because of a few incidents. We don’t operate that way, and can’t (or we’d be paralyzed) until common proof is found.

  5. “And we just don’t know enough yet about the Ethiopian crash to draw more than surface-level parallels.”

    This was actually the best reason to ground them: We don’t know what’s happening.

  6. Trump was wrong and it was not overengineering. Boeing is paying for its rushed engineering now. One failed angle of attack sensor can cause MCAS to misbehave pushing the nose of a plane down to the ground. What was unfortunate is that Boeing did not require recertification for 737 Max pilots from other models, so a pilot may know how to fly 737 well, but when this edge case of malfunctioning MCAS hits, the whole flight is screwed as the pilot did not know how to respond to failed MCAS. We are blaming inexperienced pilots from developing countries on the accident. Perhaps we should just feel lucky we did not have a very bad single-point-of-failure sensor in one of our 7Ms.

  7. @Robert, I have seen this line of logic used in several comments, that if a few cars of a specific model were to crash, that we would not “ground” them. I can’t agree. At this point, a little over 1/2 of 1% of all M8 have had fatal crashes. If, for example, Ford came put with a new line of F-Series trucks and, over the course of 6 months, 4900 of them (the same proportion, just in the US, not worldwide) were involved in fatal collisions where it appeared that the cruise control had sped the car up by itself and the drivers were unable to disable it. You don’t think that the NTSB would force Ford to recall those trucks? Of course they would.

  8. Gary I’ve read a host of articles on your site (and others) about this accident and I have a couple of thoughts that I don’t believe have been addressed:

    1. I’ve seen many references to the MCAS system and its role to be there in case the sensor(s) that read/interpret a stall activate/detect a stall situation. Yet none of these articles have addressed whether or not the stall sensor(s) are faulty.

    I have no idea how the sensor(s) work but something in my head says “shouldn’t these sensors be examined if they’re giving this MCAS system a reason to kick in?”

    If the other flight data from the flight data recorders during these two 737 MAX 8 accidents indicate that a stall wasn’t happening (or likely to happen) then why did the sensor(s) kick in and activate MCAS? Is something wrong with the sensor(s)?

    2. How often do pilots encounter a stall situation? I am not a pilot (though I’m a road warrior business traveler on commercial planes every week for many years now) and I wonder how often pilots find themselves in a stall situation?

    If it is a rare occurrence but the above-referenced sensor(s) indicate a stall then how narrow is the difference between “normal flight” and “stall” for these sensor(s) such that they would activate the MCAS?

    If a stall is a rare occurrence then is this MCAS system needed? I’m certain that a stall situation is something pilots are (and have been for decades) trained to deal with so why is this system there? It appears from what I’ve read that AA and Southwest have added a system (Angle of Attack?) to counter this MCAS issue, which again also makes me wonder “why is it there?” And how do we know these additional “AoA” sensors are giving accurate readings?

    Maybe these are crazy thoughts (and in this day and age of the Internet I can’t help but think someone will comment that I’m an idiot even though I’ve admitted that I know NOTHING about the actual workings of the various systems on today’s commercial aircraft) but they seem like legitimate questions to ask (but maybe I’m wrong on that).

    Last, thanks for the great site, I have learned a TON over the years! God bless you, your wife and newborn!

  9. You are aware that FAA allowed Boeing to largely self test this thing to get it certified?
    Corporate US is totally corrupted but you seem still naive enough to ‘trust’ the FAA.
    No doubt you trust FDA as well who is equally prostituting for the industry.

  10. The FAA used to be the undisputed leader in aviation safety, one that the world looked up to. It’s crazy that the Chinese are now better at keeping people safe than the useless DOT/FAA, who’s just a mouthpiece of crony capitalists (as, at times, looking back, is this blogger, who’s always supported airlines fees).

    I used to doubt those who said that America was in decline; however, they seem to be right. Wow.

  11. @KK I read a whole bunch about MCAS on reddit.
    The grounding was decided once both planes in Lion and Ethiopian airlines were found to exhibit similar erratic vertical speeds in refined satellite imagery. That greatly increased the chance of the same reason for the two accidents. While accidents per mileage for this relatively new plane 737 Max may seem low, there have only been 350 7M planes in operation for a bit more than 1 year and who knows there may be components with especially high failure rates. Two plane crashes probably with the same reason within 5 months is a red flag. Depending on how you play with statistics, you can argue it’s fine or not. It may be that US airlines have been lucky to receive 7Ms that have not failed yet, since the reason is unknown.
    What brings an interesting twist is that MCAS issues were reported in the Ethiopian plane by pilots in earlier flights and the pilot in this last fatal flight had gone through MCAS training. Did the MCAS degrade into a catastrophic failure, or did the last pilot just forget how to disable MCAS? Anyway, that a pilot with MCAS training still possibly had MCAS failure is another red flag.
    It is all complicated business interests why engineering hacks like MCAS was in place. Southwest Airlines insisted on uniform type certification to avoid cost of retraining. Boeing hacked a 737 to add a bigger engine, which shifts weight making the plane more prone to nose lift; the lift was compensated by push down by MCAS. Trump called it overengineering, but it was all engineering hack really. The flight operation was made as much like an old 737 as possible and Boeing didn’t even tell airlines about MCAS prior to the Lion airline accident (in order to preserve the same type certification).

  12. I usually read and like all of your posts, but this one of yours is just wrong and I could not disagree more.
    Even President Trump has got it!
    The aircraft should be user – friendly with the pilots. It is right that the pilots should be monitored and if they are operating outside the normal flight envelope warning should be given – in increasing severity and in the final stage automatic corrective action be initiated. Stall warning, stick shaker and stick -pusher for example.
    But interference with the operation on the basis of one indication from a single source is just plain stupid and dangerous.
    Boeings required 3 autopilot working in unison to do the first auto lands. Fail-safe and ‘out voting’ making the system robust and safe
    It is possible that with a very high level of training and understanding of the MCAS the aircraft can be operated without undue danger.
    But why certificate the aircraft as is – with a single source error capable of causing disaster.
    The attempt to continue flying the MAX8 series with those shortcomings was wrong and will only have damaged the international standing of the FAA.

  13. @Robert @farnorthtrader
    Don’t forget the risk profiles of a car accident and a plane accident are totally different. With a plane flying overhead filled with tons of fuel at super high speed, the prospect of a big hit, especially at a densely populated city, is unthinkable. Each country/city has to decide for its own what is acceptable risk in regards to 737 Max.

  14. Hi Gary,

    I think your Blog posts have been among the best online however I totally disagree with your trust in the FAA under Trump.
    In my view any Agency under this Gov. is suspect for giving more of a benefit of the doubt then the poor Schmo American voter.

    Boeing has given big bucks to Trump and is supporters they can not be trusted to take care of us or the people we love.

    Tell me Gary if the 737 Max 800 or 900 were still flying now would you take your wife and child on a trip on either Aircraft ?

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