The muddled response by US regulators and the Trump administration to the safety risks of the Boeing 737 Max is raising fresh doubt about the international airworthiness not only of a jetliner - but also of American leadership.
Across the globe, the US Federal Aviation Administration for decades represented the gold standard for air safety - a regulator whose decisions, particularly on American-made aircraft, boosted the confidence of plane travelers in New York, Miami and Los Angeles as well as London, Rio de Janeiro and Beijing.
Yet since Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash shortly after takeoff - the second 737 Max to go down in less than five months - foreign observers have watched Washington’s handling of the crisis with mounting alarm. Critics at home and abroad are blaming, at best, erratic decision-making and, at worst, domestic commercial interests, for what many of them decry as a flawed US reaction.
“Protection of passengers is what the FAA is there for. Beyond any consideration, it’s safety, safety, safety. And traditionally, the FAA has been the best in the world,” said Elmar Giemulla, a professor of aviation law at the Berlin University of Technology in Germany. “But now, this has been spoiled.”
Defended the 737 Max
After Sunday’s crash, the FAA defended the 737 Max until reversing course on Wednesday, two days after China led a host of nations in grounding the jetliners. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, fired off rambling tweets about newfangled planes before preempting his own regulators and announcing the US decision to finally ground the aircraft based on new evidence that showed similarities between Sunday’s crash in Africa and that of another 737 Max crash in Indonesia last October.
The outcome, critics say, has undermined American credibility as the pacesetter for global aircraft standards, while potentially ushering in a new era in which international regulators - particularly those in China and Europe - assert growing clout. The global response now stands in contrast to 2013, when foreign aviation authorities largely followed the US lead in dealing with a rash of battery problems that led to the temporary grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
‘Just looked idiotic’
This time, the FAA “just looked idiotic,” said Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the US Transportation Department. Noting that Ethiopia has decided to send black boxes recovered from Sunday’s crash to France rather than the United States for analysis, she added, “There is no way this doesn’t erode confidence in American aviation regulation and American leadership.”
Giemulla said the delays in Washington have reinforced fears that the Trump administration is compromising the work of government agencies and experts in deference to the wishes of big companies such as Boeing.
“It fits the impression that the world outside the US has of Donald Trump. And the suspicion, of course, is that he has ordered the FAA to deviate from its main task,” he said.
For some, the events of this week harked back to the international distrust of American financial regulators that surfaced after a toxic meltdown on Wall Street sparked the global financial crisis a decade ago. Yet it also fueled further concern over what critics call the recklessness of a Trump era driven by edicts via Twitter, impromptu trade wars and the on-again, off-again detente with North Korea.
In the aftermath of the crash, global experts marvelled at what they called a sudden “rebellion” in an area Washington once dominated: global aviation.
“The Americans may feel, and not without justification, that they have the greatest insight into the Boeing aircraft,” said Sandy Morris, an aerospace analyst at Jefferies International in London. “But this is a case when others in the world decided that they wanted to bring the risk of another accident down to zero. What you’ve seen here is a rebellion.”
Perhaps nowhere was US leadership on aviation safety being questioned more than in China, the first country to ground the 737 Max - an unprecedented move for a government that long followed cues from American authorities.
A top Chinese regulator said his agency made its decision because the FAA and Boeing had not provided China with satisfactory answers about the airplane’s software and safety issues after the first 737 Max crash - of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia that killed all 189 passengers and crew.
Li Jian, deputy director of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), suggested that the FAA was reluctant to take strong measures against the 737 Max.
“They have had difficulty making a decision, so we took the lead,” Li told reporters on Monday.
China’s move triggered a cascade of other countries, including Britain, Canada and members of the European Union, to follow suit within 48 hours, effectively isolating the FAA before Trump ordered the planes temporarily grounded as well.
Chinese officials probably welcomed the opportunity to establish their leadership credentials at an inflection point in the country’s aviation history, analysts said. China’s civil aviation market is expected to eclipse that of the United States in three years, while its first homegrown passenger jet, the C919 narrow-body model that is designed to compete with the 737 Max, is also expected to take to the skies by the mid-2020s, at least in China.
“As China grows, as its aviation grows both as a market and manufacturer, as its products and technology develop, it’s obviously the intention of the Chinese government to take on more and more global leadership,” said Guo Yufeng, chief executive of the Q&A Consulting firm in Guangzhou.
In Europe, several aviation officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the process by which jets are grounded, said they traditionally look to the FAA for guidance on US-built planes.
And for days, they stuck to that, opting not to take action in the face of mounting pressure to do so. As recently as Tuesday morning, regulators in some nations in Europe issued statements standing by the US decision to keep the 737 Max flying.
But within hours, European officials made a different determination, prompted in part by new satellite information suggesting similarities between the crash on Sunday and the Lion Air flight that went down October - evidence the United States would not act on until later in the day on Wednesday.
“Aviation safety is our number one priority & the EU is taking every step to ensure the safety of passengers,” wrote the top EU official in charge of transportation, Violeta Bulc, on Twitter.
The outcry of international criticism was not universal - few, for example, in Japan and South Korea appeared to challenge US management of the crisis. But from Canada to China to the Middle East, a social media storm erupted over the erosion of American credibility.
“Smart friends of mine have pointed out the reactions to 737 MAX might be inflection point for US hegemony,” tweeted Canadian scholar Stephen Saideman. “China says no to MAX, FAA says don’t worry, EU closes airspace. So much for US leadership.”