About two-thirds of Boeing’s 737 Max 8 aircraft have been grounded after two of the planes crashed in less than five months’ time, most recently on Sunday, which resulted in 157 deaths.
But the United States is one of very few countries yet to take such precautions, according to The New York Times.
Complicating the optics of the situation is President Donald Trump’s long and friendly relationship with Boeing, some observers have noted, making it difficult to ascertain whether the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to hold off on grounding the planes is the wise move or influenced by external forces.
European aviation regulators have now joined China, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia, along with carriers in Africa, South America, and North America in banning the planes, but they remain available for travel in the U.S. and Canada.
Boeing CEO Dennis A. Muilenburg reportedly spoke with Trump by phone on Tuesday, insisting there is no need to ground the planes and urging him to keep them in the play.
Prior to that conversation, Trump had tweeted that airplanes have become “far too complex to fly.”
“Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT,” Trump wrote, lamenting that he sees “it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better.”
The FAA said on Monday that it will examine data from the crash in Ethiopia and take appropriate action as necessary but cautioned that it is too early to compare the incident with an earlier crash in Indonesia last October.
Both Southwest Airlines and American Airlines use the 737 Max 8, the Times said, and both have expressed continued confidence in the safety of the planes. They will continue to fly the planes after analyses of data from thousands of flights showed no reason to discontinue their use, the airlines said.
At issue is “the possibility that a new system in the 737 Max — and pilots’ lack of familiarity with it — could have contributed to the Lion Air Flight 610 crash.”
The maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, called MCAS, was a “new version that could automatically change the aircraft’s trajectory,” the Times reported.
Similarities with the crash last year, which involved “both planes crashing minutes after erratic takeoffs”, has led authorities in various countries and individual airlines to ground the planes until more information is available.
U.S. authorities are facing pressure to do the same — from the public as well as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mitt Romney (R-UT), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have all urged the FAA to ground the planes in the U.S., according to Vox.
But as the federal authorities lag behind most of the world in taking precautions, the relationship between Trump and Boeing is garnering renewed attention.
Vox noted that Boeing donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural fund, and when Trump complained that the new Air Force One Boeing was working on was too expensive, he and Muilenburg personally negotiated a new price.
Further, Trump’s acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, worked for 30 years at Boeing — but that’s not all.
“Trump’s former US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, is about to join Boeing’s board,” Vox reported. “The president has held events at Boeing facilities in St. Louis and Charleston. When he got upset about the cost of Lockheed Martin’s F-35, he threatened to buy Boeing products instead.”
Read more about the Trump-Boeing relationship at Vox.