As the sense of crisis at Boeing mounted Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held fast to its position and declined to ground the Boeing 737 MAX, even as most countries in the world moved to do so.
In a statement, the FAA said it continues an urgent and extensive review of all available data on the two recent crashes that killed a total of 346 people.
“Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft,” the FAA said.
On Wednesday, Canada said it too is grounding the 737.
Criticism of that stance was building in aviation circles in the U.S.
Two of the largest unions representing flight attendants joined the chorus of calls to ground the airplane. With flight crews now echoing the concerns of jittery passengers fearful of flying on a MAX, Boeing and the FAA faced intense pressure to justify their divergence from the judgment of safety regulators overseas.
In an interview, Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said America’s reputation around the world as a leader in aviation safety “is going to be impacted because of our failure to put safety first and keep the aircraft on the ground until we’re confident we know what went wrong.”
Hall said that “if either one of those accidents, and certainly if both of them, had occurred on U.S. soil, the plane would be grounded.”
He added that Boeing has “put an emphasis on training to make it appear that the Americans are trained well but we can’t train the foreigners. And I think it will leave a bad taste in people’s mouths around the world.”
The concern follows two tragedies only months apart: the Lion Air jet crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people in October and the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday that killed 157.
China, Boeing’s largest 737 customer base, led the world in grounding all MAXs Monday, soon joined by other countries including Indonesia. Then on Tuesday, Europe’s aviation safety regulator, EASA, suspended all Boeing 737 Max operations in Europe as “a precautionary measure” and banned all airlines from flying the MAX in European airspace.
That ban took effect even as some MAXs were in the air, forcing them to divert from their destinations. According to the BBC, a Turkish Airlines flight to Birmingham, England, turned around and returned to Istanbul, and a Norwegian Air flight to Tel Aviv turned back to Stockholm.
The FAA and EASA typically work in tandem. If the FAA issues an airworthiness directive on a Boeing jet, EASA will quickly mirror it with its own. And if EASA issues an airworthiness directive on an Airbus jet, the FAA will follow its lead.
Indian safety regulators later joined EASA in grounding the MAXs. That left the airplane unable to fly in most parts of the world except the U.S. and Canada.
Boeing’s stock price fell again Tuesday in reaction to developments, closing at just over $375, down 11 percent from $423 before the crash in Ethiopia. According to Boeing share data provided by S&P Global IQ, that fall in the stock price has knocked $27 billion off the company’s market value.
A total of 387 Boeing MAX aircraft have been delivered worldwide, and Boeing has a massive order backlog of almost 4,700 more to build, making it the company’s cash cow.
Just after 5 p.m. Pacific on Tuesday, flight tracking website Flightaware showed 113 of the 737 MAXs airborne across the globe. Of those, 85 were flying in the U.S. or Canada.
As the FAA reiterated its position, it reacted defensively to the difference of opinion with aviation regulators around the globe, saying that those foreign authorities have provided no data “to us that would warrant action.”
The FAA statement concluded by promising that it will “take immediate and appropriate action” if it identifies any continued airworthiness issues on the MAX.
Leaders of major flight attendant unions on Tuesday added the voices of U.S. airline professionals to the criticism of the FAA decision.
The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 21 domestic and foreign airlines, called on the FAA to “temporarily ground the 737 MAX fleet in the U.S. out of an abundance of caution … until FAA-identified fixes to the plane can be installed, communicated, and confirmed.”
And Lori Bassani, national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants — which represents 25,000 flight attendants at American Airlines, the world’s biggest airline — called on CEO Doug Parker “to strongly consider grounding these planes until a thorough investigation can be performed.”
“While we cannot draw premature conclusions, it is critical to work with manufacturers, regulators and airlines to take steps to address our important safety concerns,” Bassani said.
In contrast, pilot groups in the U.S. backed Boeing and the airline leadership in resisting those calls.
Only three airlines, American, United and Southwest, currently fly the MAX. On Tuesday, Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told Southwest’s pilots that the union is “extremely confident that our entire fleet, including the MAX, is safe.
“Southwest has compiled and analyzed a tremendous amount of data from more than 41,000 flights operated by the 34 MAX aircraft on property, and the data supports Southwest’s continued confidence in the airworthiness and safety of the MAX,” Weaks wrote in his message to pilots.
The FAA’s decision to hold the line came at the end of a day when Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg called President Donald Trump, after Trump sent out two early morning tweets in which, without directly referencing the 737 MAX crashes, he complained that “airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly.”
Boeing spokesman Dan Curran said Muilenburg “reiterated to the president that the MAX aircraft is safe.”
Curran said Muilenburg was simply responding to the president’s tweets. He declined to provide additional details from the call.
This story has been updated with a link to Canada’s grounding of the 737.