There’s a word for how well the Trump White House handled issues surrounding the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and their possible connections to a Lion Air crash in October. Unfortunately, using that word would filter this story from many readers. Concerns about the plane being flown at the time of both crashes—the relatively new Boeing 737 Max 8—caused airlines and nations around the world to ground the jet following the second crash. But, as news graphics kept showing, the planes were still flying over the United States long after they had been locked down everywhere else.
But as Transportation Secretary and Mitch McConnell spouse Elaine Chao was demonstrating her faith in the plane by booking a flight on a 737 Max, behind the scenes Donald Trump was dissing the design—but not because of its safety record. According to the Washington Post, Trump’s feelings about the plane were all about the aesthetics. He prefers the 757, which he uses as a personal jet, and his informed technical opinion on the 737 is that “It sucked.” Trump also stated that he couldn’t understand why Boeing made the 737, and that he “never would have bought a 737 for the Trump Shuttle.”
And that’s certainly true. Because the Trump Shuttle went bankrupt in 1990 just months after it was launched, and ceased operations completely in less than two years. The current generation of 737s wasn’t introduced until 2011, and the Max plane not until 2016. While Trump might not think the planes worthy of being his personal air whip, someone certainly does: Boeing has sold just four short of 7,000 of the 737 Next Generation planes. They are the mainstay of air fleets around the world.
That absolute ubiquity is what makes possible issues with a plane in this series such a big deal. And also what makes an order to put them on the deck after two deadly crashes not only obvious, but something that has to be done with planning and coordination to minimize both risk and disruption to the transportation net. Instead, the aftermath of the Ethiopia Airlines crash was handled with a combination of bizarre stubbornness, a disregard for the public welfare, and capricious action that only incidentally stumbled on doing the right thing. In the wrong way.
As evidence mounted throughout the day that not only were the two deadly crashes related, but other behavior by the same model of new plane was reason for concern, Chao refused to even consider action, and Trump refused to act without Chao. The words “out of an abundance of caution” never seem to have been considered, because to have an abundance of caution, you first need to have a sufficiency of caution. For a White House that regularly bypassed recommendations on pulling pesticides off the market and that allows coal waste to be dumped in streams, the caution level stands at zero.
Only embarrassment could possibly move the needle, and when Canada finally moved to ground any 737 Max over its airspace, that embarrassment level rose into the red. Trump continued to delay, expecting Chao or regulators at the FAA to act. But it’s not clear that he called Chao, or that she even thought of breaking away from her SXSW appearance to do her job. And when it comes to the FAA, there’s not a single person in charge whose title does not include the word “acting.” Trump put them there expressly because they were against regulating the industry. They’re all “acting” because their nominations would be iffy in front of even a Republican-controlled rubber-stamp Senate. “Acting” describes precisely what they will not do.
On Wednesday, Trump finally achieved a government that met perfectly his own design—staffed by incompetents who wouldn’t make a move that might dent the price of a stock, even when the lives of Americans were directly on the line. It was a position that finally required Trump to do something on his own. Which required lying. Fortunately, that’s the one thing that Trump can do. When he hijacked a planned press event on immigration to announce that the 737 was being grounded for carefully thought-through “fact-based” reasons, he was just pulling it from his tailpipe … but at least it put the planes on the ground.
Facts didn’t get the job done. Trump’s incompetent selections holding down “acting” positions across the regulatory bodies were content to wax their fiddles while the nation burned … but enough personal embarrassment finally made something happen. Not only is that not how things are supposed to work, it’s exactly how things are not supposed to work. A competent FAA or transportation secretary would have landed those planes early, long before public sentiment and newsroom graphics made their neglect of the public good the story of the day.
Two crashes of the same model of jet in the space of five months is definitely concerning, especially when the first of those jets was only delivered in 2017. Odd as it seems, it could still be only coincidence—it’s the nature of coincidence that it always looks improbable. There may be nothing to fix, or there may be serious issues that represent an across-the-board threat to every Max-series plane. But at least that can now be discovered without counting the bodies falling from the air.
The Max jets are designed for improved fuel efficiency and are meant to compete with a new generation of relatively fuel-sipping planes like Airbus’ A320neo. The Max pushes some genuine technical advances to lower fuel consumption by 14 percent over the standard 737 Next Generation, and those planes were already much more efficient than the previous generation. Despite bearing the same name as the parent jet, the Max has changes everywhere. Larger, more efficient engines required change not just to the airframe, but of everything down to the landing gear. The materials are different. The wing design is different. The Max series of planes isn’t just a variant of the 737 Next Generation planes that are so common at present; they’re meant to replace those planes. To be the next next generation.
At present, Boeing has produced around 400 of the Max-series planes. If there is a problem, even an obscure, rarely occurring problem that appeared twice only through wild coincidence, this is certainly the time to discover it. Because when there are 7,000 in the air, even a rare issue could result in all-too-common tragedy.