Nobody wants an airplane to crash. Importantly, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the commercial aviation industry have worked diligently to prevent this from happening. Since February 2009, about 8 billion passengers have been carried in U.S. commercial aviation without a single passenger fatality — an exemplary safety record.
As a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a former secretary of Transportation, respectively, we believe that aviation safety regulators must be cautious to avoid unintended consequences. We are concerned about the potential impact of activities since the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10 in two respects — the process for grounding the 737 Max in some other countries and commencing a criminal investigation in the United States.
We commend the leadership of the FAA, supported by the secretary of Transportation, for making the difficult decision to ground the 737 Max based on the initial data from the second crash, as well as data from the October crash. Given the great impact of this decision, it should always be made based on data, not external pressure.
Read more commentary:
Airline pilot: Is it still safe to fly in a Boeing 737 Max? Don’t worry about it just yet.
Ethiopia crash of Boeing 737 Max might be latest example of backfiring safety efforts
Why FAA and NTSB are not caving to political and public pressure
The FAA has grounded airliners only three times in 40 years. The first two were the result of mechanical malfunctions that disabled the airplane so seriously, the risk of a catastrophe was too high. Those groundings resulted from the engine separating from the wing on a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 shortly after takeoff in 1979, and the lithium-ion battery fires in the Boeing 787 in 2013.
This most recent grounding, on the other hand, appears to have resulted from complex automation that pilots should be trained to respond to. Yet in two crashes several months apart, the pilots apparently did not know how to respond. Thus, it might have been a problem of an undesirable interaction between the airplane and the pilots.
Automation will never be perfect
Automation done right has a long history of improving safety, efficiency and reliability in aviation. While the aviation industry has developed robust processes over the years to help ensure that automation is done right, it will never be perfect.
When the automation is not perfect, what is the trigger for grounding? The trigger is clear when an engine separates from the wing or batteries burn, but not so clear when pilot/airplane interaction goes awry. Should the grounding occur after only one event? Or should the trigger be “X” undesirable events in “Y” months? Would a triggering event have to be a crash, or would a near-catastrophe suffice? The FAA deserves credit for gathering enough evidence to identify a possible trend rather than relying only upon a single event.
Another difficult decision awaits our aviation safety regulators: What is the trigger for ending the grounding?
While neither airplane nor training improvements will ever be perfect, the challenge will be deciding how much improvement will be enough to end the grounding. The FAA remains the premier aviation safety agency in the world; other countries should continue to follow its lead on these issues, as they have done for decades.
Don’t rush into criminal proceedings
When a disaster occurs, a common response is to try to send somebody to jail. The primary objective of most criminal laws is to punish people for trying to hurt someone or doing wrong.
The overwhelming majority of people involved in commercial aviation, however, are generally trying to do the right thing. For that reason, the NTSB and the FBI have agreed for years that airline accidents will be presumed initially not to be criminal.
Premature criminal investigations can undermine safety. The secretary of Transportation has taken the appropriate step to ask the inspector general to review the regulatory history of the 737 Max. Depending on whether signs of possible criminal misconduct are identified, the NTSB will turn the investigation over the FBI, as has been the practice for years.
But criminal proceedings, and the prospect of going to jail, make people reluctant to cooperate in such a review and chill the flow of information crucial for preventing future crashes.
We will all be safer in the long run if a civil investigation is conducted first and we can learn all that we can from the review. If evidence of possible criminal misconduct is discovered, then law enforcement can be called in.
Finally, Congress must resist the temptation to turn aviation safety into a political football. It has a duty to conduct oversight, but it should be sensitive to the adverse impact on safety that could result from attacks on the integrity and good faith of those tasked with keeping our skies safe.
Christopher Hart was the immediate past chairman of the NTSB in the Obama administration and was an assistant administrator and deputy assistant administrator at the FAA for 14 years. Jim Burnley served as secretary, deputy secretary and general counsel of the Department of Transportation in the Reagan administration and now represents a variety of transportation clients, including American Airlines.