Why was there a delay in grounding the 737 Max in the US? Truth is in the Middle

The FAA is now says that there is growing evidence which suggests that the Lion Air crash which occurred a few months ago and the Ethiopian crash which occurred on Sunday are very related. With Trump’s banning of the aircraft yesterday, many of us are left to wonder what gave way in the end? Was it being the lone nation not to ban the aircraft? Was it the pressure from the media? Or was it simply the satellite data which was brought to light in the last day or so? While the real answer is somewhere in the middle, we will really never know.

Here are a number of points to consider when thinking about why the US banned the aircraft when it did:

The Relationship between the Trump Administration and Boeing

It comes as no surprise that Boeing asked the Trump administration to refrain from banning the aircraft. And it is likely that Trump heeded Boeing’s request especially given the ties the administration has to the company. Trump’s Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was previously a Boeing Executive with thirty years near the helm of the company. The administration’s former UN Ambassador was just appointed to the Boeing Board of Directors. Let’s not forget that Trump seems to has a rather close friendship with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who has visited both Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago many times over the years. Trump has also been known to bully foreign countries into buying Boeing aircraft for their defense needs. So when Muilenburg talked with Trump on Tuesday morning and said that the Boeing 737 Max was airworthy, you bet Trump believed him.

Boeing’s Lobbyist Presence in Congress 

I have mentioned this as one of my biggest worries with regard to reaching an objective response to the incident on Sunday, in my first article recommending the grounding of the aircraft. Boeing is the largest lobbyist spender in Washington. The company has spent no less than $15 million in lobbying Congress of which $4.5 million was spent directly toward electing Congressional candidates who were in favor of Boeing. Simply put Boeing spends at least 5-6% more on lobbyism than the next company, AT&T.  There is no doubt that Congress will try to delay the grounding of the aircraft based on this.

Every Major Aviation Organization World Banned the 737 Max

By the time Wednesday evening rolled in, every single aviation ministry across the world had banned the aircraft. The U.S was beginning to look overconfident in the aircraft’s abilities especially given the known software issues and design flaws with the aircraft. If there were an incident, the reputation of the FAA and airlines would go up in smoke. So by this time there was also no better way to mitigate the fall out. The ban would have come along any way in my opinion.

While Canada also took its time to ground the aircraft, it is very likely that the government there experienced an enormous amount of pressure from its flag carriers: Air Canada and WestJet. After all, these two carriers combine to be the world’s third largest market for the 737 Max and if grounded they would be outmatched in their North American flights by their southern rivals.

The Satellite Data 

Lastly, there was the airplane tracking data that agencies across the world obtained yesterday, which seemed to indicate a very similar flight trajectories and patterns in both the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes. This was probably the “damning” evidence that led to the immediate banning of the aircraft from the skies. I’m sure the U.S didn’t want to look ridiculous when EASA and other world aviation ministries put out this bit of data indicating a definitive problem with the aircraft. After all, what comes next will be the black box recordings and other findings from the crash which are now being brought to light by the investigation over in France. Let’s not forget that it is easy for the FAA to point a finger at this data as the reason for the delay. In that sense I’m sure they were very lucky.

Media and Public

If you’ve been to the airport during this charade, you for sure know just how many people were afraid of flying this aircraft. Some were even afraid that the problem was significant enough for them to drop right out of the sky. The public as a whole pressured airlines (airline rather since SWA was the only one to do so) to begin offering free changes to those flying on the 737 Max. And I’m sure the number of rebookings and cancellations were not negligible by any stretch of the imagination.

Let’s not also forget that the media and blogs were all over this incident. Casting doubt on Boeing and the 737 at every step of the way. Serving the watchdog function of news and media as they properly should. While there was a certain amount of alarm-ism raised by the media, it certainly encouraged the public to become advocates for themselves and Congress to take action. If the media were just subservient to the information put out by Boeing and FAA initially, we may have never applied the proper pressure for this to be a reality.

Bottom Line:

While the incontrovertible links between Washington DC and Boeing caused the delays in the grounding of the plane, other factors began to pressure the government enough to where the damage from not grounding the aircraft had to be mitigated. It is always refreshing to see the government bow under pressure from the public once in a while. Capitalism and corporate interests may have caused the delay but general welfare won out in this one.

The FAA certainly lucked out in this instance, we will never know how long would be too long. 

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