How the Boeing Crashes Explain U.S. Politics

Boeing 787 Dreamliner during take-off


The two recent crashes of a new Boeing jet have drawn attention to a topic at once polarizing and boring: regulations. A powerful and poorly understood anti-stall system in the new planes may have played a role in the crashes, leading lawmakers and the public to question how the system was approved in the first place.

The debate over regulation, however, is likely to be framed as the same false choice it has been for the past 40 or so years. Republicans will argue that regulations are bad for business and growth, while Democrats will essentially cede that point, arguing that rules are nonetheless necessary for health and safety. But in fact, the Boeing episode is a reminder that effective regulation is often good for business.

A system in the Boeing 737 Max 8 is programmed to tip the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. The pilots of the crashed planes seem to have been unable to override it. A Seattle Times investigation found that regulators, under time pressure to help Boeing compete with a new model from European rival Airbus, delegated review of the new system to Boeing itself. It was part of a larger FAA policy of delegating much day-to-day regulatory work to the company, a policy that has come under intense scrutiny since the crash. Boeing engineers, doing safety analysis on the FAA’s behalf, understated the system’s potential hazards, and pilot groups say that, until the first crash, they didn’t even know about the update.

The notion of sharing the work of inspecting and clearing planes with the company isn’t absurd. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out, Boeing has a strong profit incentive to maintain a perfect safety record. But few people, or large organizations, act in perfect accordance with incentives, especially when short-term profits are pitted against long-term, hypothetical losses.

That’s why the U.S. has reams of rules about plane safety—which in turn is a big reason flying has become much safer in recent decades. How long can a pilot fly before they’re required to rest? There’s a rule for that. And one for how the cockpit is lit, and one for who’s authorized to inspect the propeller, and on and…

Boeing 737 Max: Don’t rush into criminal case and don’t make safety a political football

Safety regulators should make careful decisions on when to ground planes, when to put them back in the air, and when to start criminal investigations. .

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.

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

The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Grounded

The logo for Boeing appears above its trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. President Donald Trump says the U.S. is issuing an emergency order grounding all Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft.

What We’re Following Today

It’s Wednesday, March 13.

‣ The Senate is expected to vote tomorrow on a resolution to block President Donald Trump’s national-emergency declaration. Ahead of the vote, a group of senators, led by the Utah Republican Mike Lee, is attempting to reach a last-minute agreement with the White House to limit the president’s power to declare future national emergencies in exchange for its support on the most recent declaration. The White House has so far declined to commit.

Here’s what else we’re watching:

Bad to Worse: A federal judge sentenced Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, to 43 months in prison, bringing his total jail time to roughly six and a half years. But less than an hour after the judge’s ruling, the Manhattan district attorney indicted him on charges of mortgage fraud and other crimes for which he would be ineligible for a presidential pardon. Both defense attorneys and the judge seemed to have messages for the president.

+ Here are four important takeaways from the sentencing, according to Paul Rosenzweig, who two decades earlier served as senior counsel in the investigation of President Bill Clinton.

Grounded: Trump ordered the grounding of all Boeing 737 Max aircraft, reversing the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision from earlier in the week. The U.S. joins many other countries in grounding the jets after one crashed in Ethiopia on Sunday.

The Myth About Joe Biden: Every conversation about the former vice president running for president has involved how he might appeal to working-class Americans. But there’s no proof he can do it: Besides two failed presidential campaigns, Biden has never run a race outside his home state of Delaware.

Beto’s Privilege: The Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke appears poised to jump into the 2020 presidential race any day now. He’s reportedly kicking off a multiday Iowa tour on Friday, and brought on former Barack Obama staffers like David…

Boeing’s Political Ties and the Decision to Ground the 737 Max

Illustration by Jeffrey Henson Scales, photographs by Vincent Ricardel/The Image Bank, Aaron Foster/Photographer’s Choice, and H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock, via Getty Images

After days of pressure from anxious airline customers and concerned members of Congress, President Trump on Wednesday announced the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max 8 aircraft — a stark reversal of the Federal Aviation Administration’s previous determination that the planes were safe enough to fly despite recent crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The announcement came well after many other countries had grounded the aircraft.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, its decision was based solely on its evolving understanding of the evidence. But critics have suggested that the delay in joining the international consensus may have been the result, at least in part, of the close relationship that Boeing, a major political force in Washington and a large government contractor, has with American officials.

Boeing receives more federal money than any corporation other than Lockheed Martin, its main competitor in the defense contractor industry. Boeing took in over $23 billion in contracts from the government in the 2017 fiscal year — near its annual average. (Just this fall, the company won a $9.2 billion contract to make a new generation of jets for the Air Force.)

Senator Elizabeth Warren publicly questioned whether the government had “put lives at risk” to protect Boeing’s bottom line. She and a bipartisan group of her colleagues requested congressional hearings to investigate.

Boeing certainly has strong ties to politicians in Washington. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, reacting to the delay, called Boeing “one of the 800-pound gorillas around here.” Last year, the company spent about $15 million on lobbying. And its employees, political action committees and other affiliated groups have donated more than $8.4 million in campaign contributions since 2016, giving to Democrats and Republicans in equal measure.

But while Boeing’s lobbying efforts may seem relatively unobjectionable — most in the mainstream acknowledge that businesses, like citizens, have a right to petition their government — the idea that a government contractor can have a hand in political donations has historically raised more serious concerns. In 1940, Congress passed a law barring individuals and firms from making federal campaign contributions while they negotiate or perform federal contracts. The intent was to prevent companies from trying to bribe politicians for lucrative deals and to prevent lawmakers from extorting money from companies with business before the government.

So how…

Ground Stop Issued At LaGuardia Airport Due To Staffing Issues | Hallie Jackson | MSNBC

Ground Stop Issued At LaGuardia Airport Due To Staffing Issues | Hallie Jackson | MSNBC

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a ground stop at New York’s LaGuardia airport due to a staffing shortage related to the government shutdown. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.
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Ground Stop Issued At LaGuardia Airport Due To Staffing Issues | Hallie Jackson | MSNBC

Air traffic controllers’ union issues dire safety warning over shutdown

An aircraft flies past the control tower as it prepares to land at New York’s John F Kennedy airport.

Union leaders representing air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants issued an urgent warning on Wednesday that the month-long government shutdown was threatening the safety and security of the nation’s air travel system.

“We cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break,” the union leaders wrote. “It is unprecedented.”

In the joint statement, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association president, Paul Rinaldi, the Air Line Pilots Association president, Joe DePete, and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president, Sara Nelson, described a “growing concern for the safety and security of our members, our airlines, and the traveling public due to the government shutdown”.

They said staffing at air traffic control facilities was at a “30-year low” as the rate of employee callouts continued to rise. To…

Axios: Trump wants longtime personal pilot to head FAA

One senior administration official told Axios that Trump had recommended John Dunkin, who flew Trump’s plane during the campaign, for the position.

The official said that Dunkin was interviewed for the post and was impressive.

“He’s on the list because he’s the president’s pilot, but if he gets the job it won’t be because he’s the president’s pilot,” the official told Axios.

Another administration official also confirmed that Dunkin was under consideration for the job, but that the pilot had the…

With Saturday Deadline For Reauthorizing FAA Approaching, Congress Is Still Playing Politics

You likely wouldn’t fly on a commercial jet if you knew the pilots up front weren’t getting paid because their company didn’t have the money to spend, right? But would you fly if you knew the air traffic controllers who manage 87,000 flights a day weren’t getting paid because their agency is broke?

Come Sunday that could become a very real question if both Houses of Congress fail pass a bill extending the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority to operate and spend federal money – and even to exist, formally – by midnight Saturday, Eastern time. Now, you might think that Congress surely would never let that happen, but you’d be wrong. It did happen just six years ago in 2011, when political wrangling prevented the passage of an earlier FAA reauthorization bill.

Air Traffic Controllers at work in the tower at Miami International Airport in March. If Congress doesn’t approve by Saturday night a six-month extension of the legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration these and other controllers around the nation will have to continue working without pay until Congress can pass such a bill. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This year, as distressingly seems to have become standard operating procedure under that big white dome in Washington, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on how much lard and other measures to bundle into what rational citizens would expect to be a very straightforward piece of legislation with the sole purpose of keeping air travel and air travelers safe.

Heck, this year Republicans can’t even agree with other Republicans on how the nation’s air traffic control system should be operated.

On Monday, House Democrats blocked a bill that would have (pending similar approval by the Senate) kept the FAA operating for another six months. Though Republicans control the House the measure was being moved by a special fast track parliamentary maneuver that required two-thirds approval to pass. It came up well short after Democrat House leaders instructed their members to vote “no.”


Because the bill also included an amendment giving significant tax relief to residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands impacted by the recent hurricanes. The Democrats support that idea but say the amendment contained in the FAA extension bill doesn’t go nearly far enough in meeting the need. They’re also opposed to an amendment that would encourage the growth of private flood insurance markets, and extend several expiring public health programs, but not the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program.

On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee re-jiggered the proposal a bit to include more Hurricane relief dollars and a few other goodies and set the measure for a re-vote Thursday. Assuming it passes – which is probable but not a cinch – the Senate also would need to pass the measure before Saturday expires, else the FAA will run out of money and authority. And the measure will need 60 votes there to pass, which means at least eight Democrat senators will have to buck their leadership to vote with Senate Republicans. It also means that the Senate, known for its glacial pace of decision making, would have to move unusually and, for it, painfully fast.

If the FAA Extension fails in either chamber, the agency will be forced to do what it did in 2011: send everyone but “essential” employees home. Excluding air traffic controllers that’s pretty much everyone, including the hundreds of inspectors who work daily to ensure that airlines and private aircraft owners are keeping their aircraft properly maintained and meeting the thousands of safety and maintenance requirements for every aircraft that flies in the United States.

Controllers would be kept on as “essential employees” but would not be paid for their work – if they pass a payday while the FAA remains “unauthorized.” Eventually they, plus all those non-essential employees who would be sent home, likely would receive back pay for the period when the FAA lacked authorization. That’s what happened in 2011. But important work would be left undone for some undetermined period and the agency’s entire workforce would be thrown into upheaval and, perhaps in some cases, short term financial distress.

Of course, this whole drama could have been avoided entirely if Congress could reach agreement on an actual law – not a temporary extension – reauthorizing the FAA’s authority and federal money-spending ability. But that hasn’t happened since 2012, and even then it took multiple short-term extensions and a brief period when the FAA’s authority was allowed to lapse, at least technically. That 2012 reauthorization bill was only good for four years. But last year, rather than do the hard work of settling differences and passing another actual FAA reauthorization bill, Congress passed an 18-month extension. That’s the measure that expires Saturday night.

There are a number of policy differences between Democrats and Republicans and, as noted, among Republicans themselves that will have to be hashed out by the end of next March, when the FAA Extension now up for vote would expire (assuming it passes at all). And that’s far from being a sure thing.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) strongly supports spinning off the Air Traffic Control Organization from the FAA to a federally-chartered non-profit corporation, arguing that the operational function of enabling safe aircraft operations should be separated from the regulatory and enforcement function of government, as it already has been in more than 60 nations, including every other major developed nation. Shuster and his supporters say such a “privatization” or “corporatization” would free the ATC organization from the innovation-stifling…