The Trump administration stood firm behind Boeing and its troubled 737 MAX — until it didn’t.
For two days, the nation’s top transportation safety regulators didn’t sway from their decision to let Boeing’s money-making workhorse continue carrying passengers across the U.S., even as governments including China, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the European Union and finally Canada declared it too dangerous to fly. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao rode in a 737 MAX back to Washington, D.C. from Austin on Tuesday. President Donald Trump kept his silence, aside from griping on Twitter that planes are becoming too complicated for pilots to handle.
Then Trump reversed course Wednesday afternoon — preempting his own aviation regulators and appearing to surprise at least one airline with an announcement that all 737 MAX planes operating in the U.S. would be grounded immediately, and indefinitely.
Acting Federal Aviation Administration chief Dan Elwell took responsibility for the decision, saying it was reached after having received “refined satellite data” Wednesday morning about Sunday’s crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX jet, showing striking similarities with an October disaster in which an Indonesian plane of the same model had mysteriously plunged from the sky. The data was from a satellite that tracks information broadcast by commercial planes, including the aircraft’s location, height, speed and direction.
The data had to be refined because an initial, “very rough” data set from the Ethiopian plane appeared unreliable because it did not resemble the “credible movements of an aircraft.”
“Since this accident occurred, we were resolute in our position that we would not take action until we had data to support taking action,” Elwell said on a call with reporters. “That data coalesced today, and we made the call.”
A senior administration official said the data had arrived at 10:30 a.m., prompting the FAA and the Department of Transportation to meet at 1 p.m. and Chao to call Trump at 1:30 with the decision to ground the planes.
But it wasn’t immediately clear what the FAA knew Wednesday afternoon that it couldn’t have known earlier in the day, when Canada barred the 737 MAX from its airspace — also citing newly available data about the flights — or on Tuesday, when the EU and other U.S. allies made the same call.
The result was a decision that Democratic lawmakers criticized as days overdue, but which some in the aviation industry called abrupt and haphazard. And as always in this administration, the president was heavily invested in the issue — in contrast to the way then-President Barack Obama allowed his Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, to announce the grounding of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner jets in 2013 amid a spate of electrical fires.
Trump, a long-time owner of a Boeing 757, had spoken by phone about the crisis on Tuesday with company CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who has previously dined with the president and met with him at Mar-a-Lago. Trump has also expressed strong opinions about the state of U.S. air travel and the FAA, sometimes citing his personal pilot as a “real expert” on topics like an ongoing upgrade to satellite-based navigation.
The fact that Trump made Wednesday’s announcement, stepping in front of an FAA statement that came out shortly after, was surprising to some who have been involved with similar situations. Trump made the remarks during a planned briefing on drug trafficking at the border — breaking the news that guaranteed himself a spot at the top of Wednesday’s newscasts.
“It’s highly, highly unusual and can be seen as working against the safety first imperative of the FAA,” said John Porcari, who was a deputy DOT secretary under Obama.
Trump’s description of Boeing as “a great, great company with a track record that is so phenomenal” also caught some people off guard, he said.
“It’s essential and always has been to separate the safety aspects of aviation that are part of the FAA from the trade promotion and economic development aspects,” Porcari said.
Southwest Airlines, the nation’s biggest user of 737 MAX jets, initially expressed puzzlement about Trump’s announcement, posting a statement — later taken down — that said only that it was “aware of media reports” about the planes being grounded. The company said it was “seeking confirmation and additional guidance from the FAA.”
One aviation industry group, the Flight Safety Foundation, complained that the global wave of 737 MAX groundings was rushed and disorganized. “This globally haphazard approach to an important airworthiness issue was most unfortunate,” the organization said in a statement, adding that “global aviation safety is best served by timely, harmonized decisions based on facts and evidence, not conjecture, politics, or media pressure.”