WASHINGTON/CHICAGO - Since shortly after the dawn of the jet age, the world has followed America’s lead on aviation safety.
Now, in a remarkable rebuke, nations from the U.K. to Australia have rejected public reassurances from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and grounded Boeing’s 737 Max 8. They have not only told their carriers not to fly the jets, they have in some cases prohibited the plane from flying through their airspace.
“I’m watching this unfold with an element of astonishment and bemusement,” said Sandy Morris, an aerospace analyst at Jefferies International in London. “What we’re looking at here is almost a rebellion against the FAA. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen this happen.”
Within hours of the FAA issuing a global notice of “continued airworthiness” on Monday, nation after nation declared a halt to flights of the plane. They include Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, the U.K., France, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands. The European Union Aviation Regulator announced its own suspension of flights later Tuesday.
“Safety has absolute priority,” German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer told NTV in an interview on Tuesday. “Until all doubts have been dispelled, I have ordered that the German airspace is closed for the Boeing 737 Max as of now.”
The moves undercut decades of attempts to improve cooperation among Europe, the U.S. and other nations that certify new passenger-carrying planes. They also could come back to haunt manufacturers like Airbus if one of its aircraft faces questions in the future, said Randy Babbitt, who served as head of the FAA.
“It is highly unusual,” said Babbitt. “It sets a very bad precedent. It’s premature to just ground the airplane based on speculation.”
The nations moved against Boeing’s latest model, an upgrade of the venerable 737 known as the Max family, following the second fatal crash of the plane in less than five months.
Although the first Max 8 crash, near Indonesia last October, raised questions about a safety feature on the plane — as well as identifying serious maintenance and pilot failures — there has been no clear indication of what brought down an Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 on Sunday.
To Babbitt, the lack of a specific safety flaw leading to the grounding is one of the most confounding aspects of the global response.
China, one of the first nations to act, said it was acting specifically because no cause for the latest accident has been identified.
“We are in touch with Boeing and the FAA and sent people to investigate and follow up with the progress of the probe,” Li Jian, deputy director of Civil Aviation Administration of China, told reporters on Monday.
“The Max plane has changes in design from that of previous generation and looks like it has brought uncertainties in risks,” Li said. “Through our analysis of the two accidents we believe there are some commonality in the two and cause of the incidents might be due to design defaults.”
The FAA certified the Max 8 in 2017. As a result of the Lion Air crash on Oct. 29, the FAA said Monday it will order Boeing to redesign safety software on the plane that erroneously pushed the nose down repeatedly.
Boeing on Tuesday reiterated that it has “full confidence” in the safety of the Max 8. Since the FAA isn’t mandating any new action, “based on the information currently available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators.”
“We understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets,” Boeing said in a statement. “We’ll continue to engage with them to ensure they have the information needed to have confidence in operating their fleets.”
The FAA has stood by earlier statements that it is closely monitoring the situation in Ethiopia and the Max 8 in general. “The FAA continuously assesses and oversees the safety performance of U.S. commercial aircraft,” it said in a statement. “If we identify an issue that affects safety, the FAA will take immediate and appropriate action.”
Under international law, the country where an aircraft is made takes the lead in certifying it is safe to fly. Thus, the FAA is first to certify Boeing products, while Europe’s EASA is the primary agency overseeing Airbus.
After initial approvals, other nations will also sign off on new aircraft. That allows a U.S. carrier to fly a European-made Airbus, for example.
“Yes it is true that Britain, Australia and Singapore are closer to peers than China and Indonesia, but the FAA should be left alone to do their job,” U.S.-based aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia, noting that the narrative could swing again once details are known of the latest 737 crash.
In recent years, the U.S., Europe, Brazil and Canada — home to the largest jet manufacturers — have taken steps to work more closely on certification. While there are occasional differences between the FAA and other nations, they have tended to be minor.
Jens Thordarson, chief operating officer at Icelandair Group, gave voice to the pressures airlines and governments are facing.
“We have not gotten any information on why Britain took these measures and then others after them,” Thordarson said in a statement. “We decided however to follow their example since we compare ourselves to these airlines and also because it of course reduces the utility of these planes not to be able to fly them over Britain. Our independent evaluation of the planes is still the same as yesterday that they are safe.”
One former official at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes but has no regulatory authority, said he was skeptical about the groundings until he heard that the U.K. was acting.
“I’ve worked with the U.K. I respect them,” said Peter Goelz, who served as managing director at NTSB. “You have to take their judgment seriously.”
Babbitt, the former FAA administrator, said that he understood the growing pressure aviation regulators face as people wait for answers to what happened in Ethiopia, but that the public could be reassured by actions short of a full grounding.
Regulators could put limits on how the Max 8 is operated or consider temporarily disabling the safety feature implicated in the Indonesia accident, he said. In addition, they could mandate additional pilot training on the plane.
“I think the world has gone mad, quite frankly,” said Jeffrey Guzzetti, the former director of the FAA’s accident investigation division. “I think it’s capricious. Civil aviation authorities are grounding a workhorse airplane with no evidence and seemingly on public fear.”