Max-8 saga: the cost is far more than money to the US

The cost of the Max-8 saga to the United States is vastly more than money.

Around the world, Aviation as an industry touches more lives than almost any other outside of automotive and mobile phone technology.

The FAA was seen as the Gold Standard in aviation safety. The United States a leader with the worlds largest manufacturer in its ranks with the second making aircraft on its soil.

The FAA led and others followed. The US led and others followed. And now, in a few days the world sees both as having surrendered that crown. For most people it’s their first time they have seen and felt the direction Trumps America has taken.

China – yes China – was the first major power to ban the Max-8. They had good reasons. In a dictatorship, government complacency that results in avoidable deaths is magnified disproportionately, and China loathes anything that stirs dissent. With inadequate information from the FAA, little from Boeing over the first crash, a second one sounded alarm bells in Beijing.

They asked for information and got nothing. They weren’t the only ones. Then they got the FAA saying there was basically nothing to worry about. That wasn’t good enough to a sensitive regime like China’s and they banned the aircraft out of caution.

In an unprecedented move, the European and British aviation agencies – usually quite happy to follow the FAA lead, sat bemused as to what was going on in the US. They too acted, and much of the rest of the world did the same, until just Canada and the US, eventually just the US, stood alone.

While Trump who thinks having a 757 and once owning a failed airline makes him something of an aviation expert, apparently spoke with Boeing’s CEO about the 737, which he doesn’t actually like. Stating he’d never have bought them for his airline according to several reports. Trump didn’t get why Boeing had done nothing either.

Ever conscious of public perception, to his credit Trump forced the FAA’s hand.

In a battery of butt-covering phrases, not least of which was “out of an abundance of caution”, the FAA finally issued its ban. The last country to do so.

There is much written elsewhere on the self-certification Boeing is allowed to get away with – the FAA sets standards and Boeing is allowed to simply say its met them. The number of ex-Boeing staff at the FAA has also drawn much criticism but has had little real scrutiny. The “revolving door” of staff moving from the Pentagon to Boeing to the FAA and back has long been a fact of life. The acting Secretary of Defense is a former Boeing executive, just as one prominent example.

With an unhealthy relationship between the regulator and the regulated, the profits of Boeing – largely credited with keeping the US stock market boom at such high levels, as it ploughs billions of dollars back to investors, another dangerous feedback loop appears.

Trumps obsession with the stock market and the trade deficit – both of which Boeing contributes too in vast amounts, and he sees as guiding rails of his administrations success, make Boeing sensitive to his whims.

Never mind the vast defence contracts – that also have 737 military variants for the Navy and VIP transport, Boeing has a lot to loose from a President who rules by Tweet.

With Boeing fretting about being unable to deliver upwards of 20 Max-8’s a month, and a potentially massive compensation bill if its grounded, it’s bottom line was in danger. Why would it press for a grounding? The motivation was minimal.

The FAA just seemed too willing to take Boeing’s word that a software solution would sort Max-8 out in a few months.

Meanwhile the Ethiopian’s, astounded at the lack of interest and feeling insulted that the death of their people, passengers and the damage to their national airlines reputation didn’t seem to matter to the US or Boeing, sent the black boxes to France. That is unprecedented in these circumstances. French, EASA and Ethiopian agents are now running the investigation.

And around the world the speed of global public outcry was again unprecedented over an aircraft safety issue. It took Airlines, Boeing and the FAA totally by surprise.

And with it came a sudden realisation, percolating into the global consciousness, something we’d heard of but couldn’t feel, so didn’t believe yet, was suddenly tangible and true.

American leadership in the world is over.

Trump may have forced Boeing’s hand but as a reaction to events, not leading them. Boeing, the FAA and the US Administration were left behind in the wake of China and Europe and every other country that acted to do what America always had, done but didn’t do this time: put people and safety first, above profits and expediency.

America failed to be best, it failed to lead and everyone, for the first time, noticed. And in China, they’ll know by acting first they look like the good guys.

The wheel turns…