The US's reputation as the gold standard for aviation safety is at a make-or-break moment as the 737 Max crashes prompt questions about Boeing's conflicts of interest

  • The US has long set the standard for aviation safety and leadership around the world. But its status is taking a beating after two fatal crashes of Boeing 737 Max planes.
  • The disasters have put a spotlight on the close relationship between the US government and Boeing, changing how the world sees American standards for flight safety, experts told Business Insider.
  • The fact that the Federal Aviation Administration allows Boeing to help approve its own aeroplanes looks like a conflict of interest.
  • Foreign airlines may also perceive Boeing’s relationship with President Donald Trump as being too cosy.
  • The US’s reputation can recover if the FAA takes appropriate steps, experts tell Business Insider.
  • Read more stories on Business Insider’s homepage.

The US’s reputation as the gold standard for aviation is at a make-or-break moment, experts and lawmakers say, as it deals with the fallout from two fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes in five months that killed almost 350 people.

Generations of American leadership have solidified the US aviation industry as the international standard for safety that others emulate.

But the two fatal crashes, one last month in Ethiopia and the other in October in the Java Sea, both of which appear to have been caused by design flaws in an American aircraft, have put a spotlight on how the US certifies planes; the potential conflict of interest between Boeing and the FAA, which allowed Boeing to help certify its own planes; Boeing’s relationship with President Donald Trump; and the reputation of the US as the model for aviation safety.

This has led to increased international scrutiny, a growing sense of mistrust, and a US Senate investigation into how the US certifies planes. Ethiopia’s preliminary report into last month’s Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash found that the pilots followed Boeing’s emergency procedures but were still unable to save the plane. Boeing has acknowledged issues with the software at the center of both crash investigations, working on updates to the software.

Boeing 737 Max Lion Air crashARIF ARIADI/AFP/Getty ImagesA wallet belonging to a passenger of the ill-fated Lion Air flight in Indonesia in October.

Tom Farrier, a former senior safety analyst with the government consulting firm JMA Solutions who advised the FAA, told Business Insider that as a standard-setter, the US “generally has been accepted and institutionalized across much of the globe.”

But the crashes have harmed the country’s reputation. “As far as ‘reputational’ harm is concerned, that seems clear enough,” he said. “In the near term, of course it will do damage.”

Michael Dreikorn, a former FAA official who also previously served as vice president of quality and compliance for the jet-engine maker Pratt & Whitney, told Business Insider he thought the FAA was taking a “credibility hit globally” as a result of the two crashes.

“The US’s reputation can take a hit,” he said. “And it probably should take a hit.”

Some believe Trump is too ‘cosy’ with Boeing

Alan Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, told Business Insider that fears of bias relating to the Trump administration’s relationship with Boeing might have been behind Ethiopia’s decision to send Flight 302’s flight recorders, known as black boxes, to France for examination. Normally, the boxes from an American manufacturer would be sent to the US.

“We’ve all heard the president speak out on behalf of Boeing, and in this country Boeing is a revered institution,” he said. “It’s the company that built the bombers that won World War II and whose rockets helped carry our astronauts to the moon, and they had the first successful jetliner.”

He added: “All of those factors that deal with the American administration’s closeness to Boeing may have been a major factor in the decision to send the black boxes to France.”

Dreikorn said there was no suggestion of inappropriate behaviour by Trump or any of his predecessors who praised and worked with the American manufacturer. But he said there might be a negative “perception in people’s minds.”

Read more:
FAA expects Boeing to come up with new software to fix the grounded 737 Max in a matter of weeks

“I absolutely get what kind of a negative, or should I say inappropriate, perception it creates in light of the situation we have today,” he said.

Todd Curtis, a former Boeing safety engineer who founded the air-safety website, echoed Diehl’s view, saying what he called a “very cosy relationship for a long time” between the US and Boeing had become “a bit closer” under Trump.

This action was a snub, that the Ethiopian authorities sent the message that they don’t believe the US would be completely objective when it comes to interpreting the data

And while the relationship is not under legal scrutiny, it suggests that “Ethiopia would have issues other than getting to the bottom of the crash,” Curtis told Business Insider.

“My opinion is that this action was a snub, that the Ethiopian authorities sent the message that they don’t believe the US would be completely objective when it comes to interpreting the data,” he said.

Read more:
The crashed Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max hit the ground at 575 mph and left a crater 32 feet deep, horrifying details in official report reveal

Diehl described the relationship as a “potential conflict” rather than one that actually existed but said other nations might have it in mind when dealing with the US aviation industry.

“If I was Ethiopian Airlines, I would have done the same thing,” Dreikorn said. “Just to ensure a nonbiased reading of the content.”

But Tom Farrier, a former senior safety analyst with the government consulting firm JMA Solutions who advised the FAA, described Ethiopia’s decision as one that was “both an impulsive, anger-driven insult and a deliberate setting aside of long-held practices in investigation.”

“To date, I have seen no reason beyond politics and raw emotions for the recorders not to have been sent to the US,” he said.

And yet it happened anyway – perhaps a symbol of how deep the mistrust now goes.

737 Max Ethiopian Airlines crashSAMUEL HABTAB/AFP/Getty ImagesMourners of those killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash beside a funeral car during the mass funeral in Ethiopia in March.

The FAA allowed Boeing to test its own planes

An international spotlight has been put on the FAA’s processes and the close ties between manufacturers and the regulatory agency.

The FAA’s system of giving aircraft manufacturers the authority to examine and test their own products, which allowed Boeing to oversee much of the certification of its own software, is under scrutiny from lawmakers as they investigate how the 737 Max was certified to fly.

Read more: The Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max pilots followed all the right procedures but crashed anyway, official report finds. Now the spotlight turns to Boeing.

Dreikorn said the close relationship between Boeing and the FAA was affecting international perceptions of the US.

He described the FAA as for years being “reluctant to engage” with those who took issue with its and Boeing’s relationship.

Read more:
FAA expects Boeing to come up with new software to fix the grounded 737 Max in a matter of weeks

The government’s relationship with manufacturers may be harming how the US is perceived

A 2012 watchdog report from the Department of Transportation found that FAA employees viewed their management as “having too close a relationship with Boeing officials” and said management did not always support employee efforts “to hold Boeing accountable,” with some fearing retaliation for their efforts.

Dreikorn said the program lacked accountability, as it “holds a major corporation accountable, which means everybody is accountable, which means nobody’s accountable.”

Read more:
FAA boss says it let Boeing partly self-regulate the software thought to be behind both fatal 737 Max crashes

The acting FAA head, Daniel Elwell, defended the system to the Senate as one that created safe aircraft and said changing it would require more 10,000 new employees and an additional $US1.8 billion. Business Insider has contacted the FAA for comment.

The FAA gave manufacturers more power in the certification process in 2003 in a congressionally endorsed effort to speed up the certification process and reduce costs.

Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico told Business Insider that an examination of the relationship was needed.

Tom UdallGabriella Demczuk/Getty ImagesSen. Tom Udall on Capitol Hill in June 2016.

‘Fatally riddled with flaws’

“Time will tell if there is long-term damage to the FAA’s historic leadership role in global aviation, but in light of the recent accidents, it is essential that the relationship be closely scrutinised,” Udall said.

He added: “Safety is in industry’s long-term interest as well, but sometimes short-term economic incentives become too powerful, and that’s why we cannot stand by and continue to allow important regulatory agencies to be captured by the industries that they oversee.”

Read more:
Senate investigating whistleblowers’ claims that government safety inspectors who approved Boeing’s 737 Max plane lacked sufficient training

He told a Senate committee in March that changes were necessary to ensure that safety “remains the paramount interest, not the quarterly profits of this company.”

At that hearing, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the “close relationship between industry and regulators” threatened to erode the public’s trust, while Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut pledged to introduce legislation meant to reform the system, which he called “fatally riddled with flaws.”

The US and the FAA can recover

“In the short term, the perceived extent of FAA may take a hit,” Curtis of said. “But the things that make the US dominant have not changed,” he said, adding: “Boeing is not going anywhere. The FAA is not going anywhere.”

Diehl said the US’s reputation would be safe if the FAA were seen to take action to address the issues. “If the FAA’s actions are well-received by other countries and the jets are allowed to resume commercial service, the current problems and criticism of the US regulatory system will soon be forgotten,” he said.

Dreikorn said a change in FAA leadership in light of the company’s certification process was the best way to achieve this. “For a long-term fix for this whole problem I think heads need to roll,” he said.

Ethiopia Airlines crashMICHAEL TEWELDE/AFP/Getty ImagesThe crash site of the Ethiopia Airlines flight.

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