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How Did the F.A.A. Allow the Boeing 737 Max to Fly?

Within five months, two Boeing 737 Max 8 jets went down, killing a total of 346 people. After the first plane went down, Boeing did not ground its other Boeing 737 jets. It was only after the second accident that many countries grounded the jets until further notice. The United States, however, was one of the last countries to take the Boeing 737 out of service. The unsafe aircraft received its initial certification due to a process at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that ultimately gave the decision to Boeing, leading many to question the safety systems in place in America.

Boeing 737s Still Flew in the U.S. After Second Crash

The first deadly Boeing 737 Max accident occurred just outside of Jakarta, Indonesia, a few minutes after takeoff. The second happened in Ethiopia. After the second accident, an investigation found a possible connection between the two crashes: a defective software system that pulled the nose of the plane sharply down in flight. The software was meant to prevent the planes from stalling since they had larger engines from a remodel that could cause the planes to stall.

Despite having information from crash investigations and black box retrievals, the FAA did not immediately ground the jets. The day after the second accident, the FAA announced it was confident in the safety of the jets and had found no reason to ground them. It was not until two days later, on March 13th, that the FAA grounded all Boeing 737 Max 8 jets – more than 300 worldwide. The FAA stated it did not ground the jets sooner in part because pilots assured the administration they were safe.

FAA Faces Backlash for Originally Certifying the Jets

One of the Federal Aviation Administration’s duties is to issue certificates of airworthiness to aircraft that have passed tests and inspections and have safe designs. Yet instead of having jurisdiction over this task, the FAA hands it off to aircraft manufacturers. The FAA’s administrator, Daniel Elwell, defended the strategy by saying it had worked for decades, and that it was faster and cheaper than the FAA certifying aircraft itself. The FAA faced significant backlash, however, for a process that appeared to give the reins to aircraft manufacturers rather than the federal safety organization.

Since the FAA trusted manufacturers such as Boeing to ensure the safety of their own aircraft, it is entirely possible the company did not vet its jets as thoroughly as it should have to save time or money. Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers could feasibly skip steps or ignore potential safety hazards before certification. Although the FAA says it oversees the process, it ultimately leaves the decision to the jet manufacturer. In the case of the Boeing 737 Max 8, this system may have contributed to the allowance of an unsafe plane to launch, which caused a catastrophic plane crash.

When Will the Boeing 737 Be in the Air Again?

There is no set date for the Boeing 737 Max 8 to return to service. Initial announcements from Boeing’s Chief Executive Officer, Dennis Muilenberg, said to expect the jets to return to service in October. However, in June, the FAA issued a statement saying it is following a thorough process, not a timeline, for returning the jets to service. The FAA will not lift the ban until it believes it is safe to do so. In the same announcement, the FAA said it found a potential problem during flight simulator tests that Boeing must first address.

In the meantime, the FAA is taking additional steps after facing pressure from worldwide aviation safety organizations. Elwell announced the creation of a new Aviation Safety Organization office but has not specified any changes in the relationship between the FAA and aircraft manufacturers. Ali Bahrami, the head of safety at the FAA, said the organization did issue a warning to pilots after the first plane crash and believed this was an adequate safety measure, but that in hindsight the agency should have revisited the issue. Boeing and the FAA are now facing multiple lawsuits from those affected by the deadly airplane accidents.

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