WASHINGTON – The U.S. aviation system needs urgently to restore the world’s confidence after two crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets.
Instead, the Trump administration’s top aviation official, goaded by some Republican lawmakers, informed the world at a hearing last week that the problem isn’t that Boeing put a faulty aircraft into the skies, nor that the Federal Aviation Administration’s lax oversight kept it flying. The trouble, they argued, comes from lousy foreign pilots – particularly the ones on Ethiopian Airlines and Indonesia’s Lion Air who died struggling to pull the Max jets from death plunges.
“I’m trying to be respectful because they’re deceased,” Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Republican from Michigan, said of the doomed crews. But, “do we not have concerns not only with the training of pilots in other nations, but the reliability of their logs?”
The acting FAA administrator, Daniel Elwell, shared this skepticism and said he “absolutely” wants to “take a hard look at the training standards globally.”
Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana, voiced concern about “the maintenance programs, the pilot experience requirements, the pilot training programs of the air carriers involved.”
And Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, ranking Republican on the House transportation committee and a pilot, criticized the deceased: They “never pulled the throttles back,” they “were simply going too fast,” they followed “no operating procedure that I have heard of.”
Elwell concurred that the problem should have been “immediately recognizable” to the pilots, but there was “apparent lack of recognition.” He blamed the Indonesians for failing to disable the system and said the Ethiopian crew “didn’t adhere to the emergency [advisory] we put out” and “never controlled their air speed.”
Sam Graves rejoined the denunciation. “I hate to disparage another country and what their pilot training is, but that is what scares me in all of this: climbing on an aircraft or airline that is outside U.S. jurisdiction. It just bothers me that we continue to tear down our system based on what has happened in another country.”
Nothing makes foreigners want to buy Boeing jets like a little jingoism.
Pilot inexperience may have played a role in the crashes after the infamous MCAS stabilization system malfunctioned. But that doesn’t negate the fact that screw-ups by both Boeing and the FAA put the faulty aircraft in the air in the first place. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that senior FAA officials failed to review key safety assessments of the MCAS system and that Boeing failed to label the stall-prevention system as a critical component whose malfunction could be catastrophic. MCAS wasn’t even originally mentioned in the plane’s manual. In addition, Boeing had disabled a safety feature designed to warn pilots about malfunctioning sensors related to the system – but it allegedly didn’t inform airlines. Boeing didn’t inform the FAA until 13 months after it discovered it had offered the safety feature as an add-on option instead of standard.
Elwell’s reaction to the Journal report that the FAA’s internal review found weak oversight: “Frankly, there’s nothing in that article that led me to anything I’m aware of.” He allowed that the 13-month delay wasn’t ideal but lectured the panel: “Don’t make something that isn’t a critical safety item a critical safety item.” Elwell also defended a policy that allows Boeing to handle much of its own safety regulation, and he said returning the Max to service is “not contingent” on completing accident investigations.
Elwell was not so forgiving of foreigners. He complained that grounding the planes (the U.S. resisted the move) “was not a collaborative process” and ignored the data. He said he hopes the return of the Max will be more collaborative. “I think that’s important for the world to have some level of confidence” in the plane, he said.
Exactly. So maybe take some responsibility?
The panel’s other witness, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt, cautioned against the attacks on foreign pilots. “Maybe there are different standards throughout the world,” he said. But “if an aircraft manufacturer is going to sell airplanes all across the globe, then it’s important that pilots who are operating those airplanes in those parts of the globe know how to operate them. ... Just to say that the U.S. standards are good and this might be a problem with other parts of the globe, I don’t think that’s part of the answer.”
Blaming the victim seldom is.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.