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FAA Insists There's No Basis To Ground Boeing's 737 Max 8 Aircraft


Why are regulators making such different decisions about Boeing's 737 Max aircraft? China and the European Union have suspended flights after two crashes. So have other countries. The United States has not, and that has prompted questions not only about their differing conclusions but their differing motives. NPR's Jackie Northam has been following this story and is with us now. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So a lot of attention is now focused on the Federal Aviation Administration making a different decision than a lot of other wealthy countries. Why is the FAA doing what it's doing or not doing what it's doing?

NORTHAM: Well, it issued a statement yesterday. The head - the acting head of the administration, Daniel Elwell, came out and said the FAA sees no problems with the Boeing 737 Max, and that there is no basis to order grounding the aircraft, especially here in the States. And he said, you know, as far as all these other countries grounding the aircraft or barring it from flying in their airspace, he said there has been no civil aviation authority that's provided any data that would warrant taking any action.

So that was a real challenge to all the other countries that have grounded this plane. Frankly, right now the FAA must feel - be feeling like it's them against virtually the rest of the world's air safety regulators.

INSKEEP: Well, in fairness, I know people who were on a 737 Max 8 yesterday, and it got to its destination, but a couple of planes didn't. So what is the European Union saying when it made its much-noticed decision, so different from the FAA?

NORTHAM: Right. I mean, the European Union, all these other countries, say safety is the primary concern. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency issued a statement saying, even though it's too early to draw any conclusions as to what happened with the crash in Ethiopia over the weekend, it is suspending any commercial flights into, within or out of the EU. And Steve, you can imagine what this is doing to global air travel. You know, this - Europe is a hub for many of these flights.

I spoke with Richard Aboulafia, and he's an aviation analyst with the Teal Group. It's an aerospace consultancy. And he said with, you know, more and more countries banning these Boeing planes, it's just easier for other regulators to follow suit, especially with those countries who only have a few of these 737 Max planes.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: It might just be a question of, well, why not just err on the side of caution and look good to the traveling public in our countries? Because we only have a small number of planes to ground, relative to the U.S. or other countries.

NORTHAM: And, you know, Steve, the decision to ground the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, according to Aboulafia, could also be politicized in countries such as China or Indonesia, where the independence of the regulatory agencies is questionable. And, you know, I spoke with other analysts, and they said it may be an opportunity for a country like China to take a shot at an iconic American company, especially when China and the U.S. are embroiled in a trade war.

INSKEEP: Well, there's a lot of questions, not evidence, but questions about that - people asking whether China had other motives. I suppose there are people asking whether the FAA would have other motives since it's an American company. Let me ask about that. Is it unusual for traditional U.S. allies, like the EU, not to be making the same decision as the FAA?

NORTHAM: Oh, it's very unusual. Normally, the international community would follow the FAA's lead on these things. A number of analysts and international regulators I spoke with felt it was premature, even brash, for these countries to ground the planes, and that they have to let the investigation by the FAA carry out. Aboulafia talked about this.

ABOULAFIA: In a matter of days or a week, we're going to find out what happened here, and I suspect the rest of the world will follow what the FAA determines to be the cause of this plane and take the appropriate actions.

INSKEEP: A reminder - we don't really know what happened in the Ethiopian crash. The question is whether you'd take that precaution or not take that precaution.

NORTHAM: And that's up to the individual countries, you know. At this point, the FAA is standing firm, but the other countries are still following, you know, and banning these planes.

INSKEEP: Jackie, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jackie Northam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.