Pressure grows on FAA to ground 737 Max 8

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U.S. aviation officials faced intensifying pressure Tuesday to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 after other countries and airline carriers took that step following a second fatal crash in recent months involving the plane. 

President Trump expressed concern that “airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly,” and congressional lawmakers and industry experts pressed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to keep the planes out of the sky in the name of safety.

“Continuing to fly an airplane that has been involved in two fatal crashes within just six months presents an unnecessary, potentially life-threatening risk to the traveling public,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a letter to acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell urging him to ground the planes.

{mosads}Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called on the FAA to ground the planes pending an investigation into the causes of recent crashes, as did Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) became the first 2020 Democratic presidential candidate to wade into the discussion and questioned whether the Trump administration had ulterior motives in keeping the plane in the air.

“The FAA should follow their lead, reverse their decision and immediately ground this plane until its safety can be assured,” Warren said in a statement.

“In the coming weeks and months, Congress should hold hearings on whether an administration that famously refused to stand up to Saudi Arabia to protect foreign arms sales has once again put lives at risk for the same reason,” she added. “But that is a question to be answered another day.” 

The FAA and Boeing had issued no such guidance as of Tuesday afternoon, even as the United Kingdom joined China, Australia, Indonesia and other countries in grounding the planes. More than 20 airline carriers did the same, including Norwegian Air, Cayman Airlines and Air China.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 model was involved in the Ethiopian Airlines crash Saturday that killed all 157 people on board. The same type of plane was involved in a Lion Air crash in Indonesia in October that killed 189 people.

The cause of each crash is the subject of ongoing investigations. U.S. transportation officials traveled this week to assist with the probe into the Ethiopian Airlines disaster.

The FAA said in a statement Monday that the planes are safe to fly, and that it will take appropriate action if it determines otherwise. The agency said Tuesday morning that it had no updated comment on the matter.

Boeing announced late Monday that it would upgrade software systems in the company’s 737 Max 8 airliners after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, but has not indicated it will take further action.

There are dozens of Boeing 737 Max 8s in operation in the U.S. Southwest Airlines said it has 34 in its fleet, and American Airlines said it has 24. The model is typically used for longer distance flights.

United Airlines said it does not have any 737 Max 8 planes in its fleet but uses 14 Max 9 models.

All three airlines said in separate statements to The Hill that they are in contact with Boeing and U.S. transportation officials, and they are confident in the safety of the machines.

Some lawmakers have voiced similar confidence and explained that it may be too soon to ban the planes from U.S. airspace.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was reluctant to blame the two recent crashes on a problem with the plane.

“I wouldn’t go to that point until there’s reason to believe that this was something other than one-off or pilot error situation,” said Durbin, whose state is home to Boeing’s international headquarters. “It’s horrible to have a crash of two planes of the same model. I wouldn’t presume that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the plane absent other evidence.”

But industry stakeholders continued to press for action Tuesday.

Two major unions representing flight attendants in the U.S. – the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) – have expressed concerns about the safety of the aircraft, and the APFA issued a statement calling for the planes to be grounded.

“The safety of our crews and passengers is paramount. Our flight attendants will not be forced to fly if they feel unsafe,” APFA President Lori Bassani said in a statement.

Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, suggested on CNN that it was a matter of time before the FAA and airline carriers were forced to act.

“I would say the pressure has built to an almost unbearable level on the Department of Transportation and the FAA,” he said. “I think if they don’t hear something today from the investigators on the ground they’re going to have to act.”

Alexander Bolton contributed.

Tags Boeing Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren FAA Mitt Romney NTSB Sheila Jackson Lee

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