FLYING IN a commercial airliner is extraordinarily safe. Not only that, but it is also much safer than it used to be — worldwide accident deaths fell from 2,373 in 1972 to none in 2017 — and indeed much safer than riding in a car. This seems like a miracle, given the complexity of moving millions of people all over the world every day, but it is actually the result of hard work by skilled professionals who, over decades, assessed accidents and applied lessons learned. Crucial to this process has been objectivity and impartiality — actual and perceived.
In that sense, President Trump’s decision Wednesday to ground all 74 Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft in the U.S. commercial fleet represents a mixed blessing. No doubt it’s better to be safe than sorry; two of the 350 planes in service worldwide have crashed a few months apart in Indonesia and Ethiopia, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) explained that Mr. Trump was acting on “new evidence” that showed “some similarities” between the two crashes, suggesting a possible “shared cause.”
However, the process that brought Mr. Trump to this conclusion was erratic. Though not an expert on flying (despite his previous ownership of a failed airline), Mr. Trump responded to the Ethiopian crash, which killed 157 people on Sunday, by musing on Twitter about purported technological excesses of contemporary aircraft. Worse, the president took a phone call from the chief executive of Boeing, one of the most politically influential companies in the country, who insisted that the planes were safe and lobbied against grounding them — which is supposed to be the FAA’s decision. Meanwhile, every other nation, including close U.S. aviation partners such as Canada and Britain, was barring the planes, and senators and other politicians of both U.S. parties were urging the FAA to do the same.
In short, for two crucial days, the United States could not inspire other countries with confidence but, in the end, found itself following their lead, at one of the most critical moments for commercial aviation safety of the 21st century. Though Mr. Trump, like any president, is ultimately accountable for his administration’s record, he had no business thrusting himself personally into a safety decision that other presidents normally, and wisely, have left to professionals.
Boeing has been working on revised software for the planes in question, and it should be installed by April, after what the Wall Street Journal reports were extended discussions between the company and the FAA. These facts call for further investigation by the FAA and Congress, especially in light of the company’s assurances that the 737 Max has been safe all along. The FAA has not had a Senate-confirmed administrator for more than a year. Before approving a nominee, the Senate should assure itself that he or she has drawn appropriate lessons from this troubling episode and is capable of standing up for reasoned safety decision-making, regardless of corporate or presidential pressure.