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Why Did A Boeing 737 Max 8 Crash? The Probe Is In Its Early Stages

Mar 13, 2019
Originally published on March 13, 2019 9:19 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You can easily imagine the populist challenge that somebody might issue to the Federal Aviation Administration, you know, the sort of thing you'd hear on talk radio or read on Twitter - if they think the 737 Max 8 is safe, they should fly it. Well, yesterday, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao did. The Cabinet member who oversees the FAA took one from Austin to Washington, D.C.

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ELAINE CHAO: It's an issue that affects safety. If identified, the department and the FAA will not hesitate to take immediate and appropriate actions.

INSKEEP: For now, the agency says the Boeing plane is safe, even though many nations have grounded it after two crashes in the last five months. Let's bring in Peter Goelz. He was managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1995 to 2000. That is the federal agency that investigates crashes and is helping to investigate the recent Ethiopian air crash. Mr. Goelz, good morning.

PETER GOELZ: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you understand how the FAA would arrive at such a different conclusion than airline regulators in China and across Europe and a lot of other places?

GOELZ: I think I do, and it's really a two-part answer. The first is, over the past decade, the FAA has really prided itself on being a data-driven organization, that they don't make ad hoc decisions. They're not making decisions on anecdotal evidence, that they are driven by the data. And the second is, they really have a close working and regulatory relationship with Boeing. And to this incident, the two carriers that fly the 737 Max, American and Southwest, have both stated that they have no concerns about the plane's safety. Southwest said they've flown over 41,000 flight operations without serious problems.

INSKEEP: OK, you said two things there I want to follow up on. One is, you said data-driven, so what the FAA is looking at is so many apparently safe flights, and we don't really know the cause yet of the Ethiopian crash, so why act? But you also used that phrase, regulatory relationship with Boeing. Is that entirely fitting given that Boeing has such a commercial interest in the FAA's decisions here?

GOELZ: Well, that's the question, isn't it? And there is - the aviation system in the United States is really governed on a cooperative and a voluntary relationship between the regulator and those - say, the original equipment manufacturers. There are not enough inspectors on the payroll to really have a gotcha oversight. So they cooperate very closely, and it's a relationship that encourages the admittance of mistakes. It's a relationship that has given us a very great system. But in times like this, it's a question - it's a relationship that certainly people question.

INSKEEP: Are you telling me that, to some extent, this is the honor system? If Boeing says the plane is good, American says the plane is good, Southwest says the plane is good, the FAA only has limited capacity to challenge that?

GOELZ: Well, they have inspectors that oversee it. They have individuals called designated representatives, who are actually employees of the company, but for certain tasks, they are representing the FAA. They do spot checks, and they do monitoring. But the reality is, there's not an inspector at every corner of the shop or at every corner at the airport when these planes are flying.

INSKEEP: Peter Goelz, do you have any doubts about the decisions that regulators overseas have made out of what I guess we could call an abundance of caution? There've been a couple of crashes, so let's stop this plane for a while and see what's going on.

GOELZ: I have to say that yesterday was the first time I started to really have concerns of myself. Because I've worked with the British investigators and the regulators. I've also worked with the German investigators, and I have the highest regard for them. These are not folks that, you know, would make haphazard judgments. So I am concerned that some of the finest regulatory and investigative groups have now called for the grounding. And...

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. When you say you're concerned, you don't mean you're concerned about the European regulators screwing up, you're saying that you are beginning to be concerned about this airplane.

GOELZ: I am beginning to be concerned about this airplane

INSKEEP: Would you board a 737 Max 8, as plenty of people did just yesterday, including the secretary of transportation?

GOELZ: I would do it, but I'd - I continue to believe in the safety, but I would be (laughter) less than honest if I said I wouldn't be a little nervous.

INSKEEP: OK. Peter Goelz, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

GOELZ: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He is now an aviation consultant and is a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency which investigates transportation accidents in the United States and elsewhere. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.