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It’s impossible to call Boeing 737 MAX 8 safe, says this aviation expert

U.S. aviation experts have convened at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 amid growing global concern about the safety of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 jet. Although dozens of countries have grounded the planes, the FAA says they're safe. John Yang reports and discusses with Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department inspector general who represents the victims of airline accidents.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The push to ground the kind of Boeing 737 jet that crashed this weekend has grown around the world.

    But here in the U.S., the FAA and the airlines say they still believe in the plane's safety. There's a fair amount of criticism and questions about that decision.

    John Yang begins with this report.

  • John Yang:

    Dozens of countries, including all nations in the European Union, have grounded the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and banned them from their airspace. That's on top of at least 27 airlines that have voluntarily taken the planes out of service.

    The actions come two days after an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 157 people on board. Chinese officials said their ban would last until U.S. regulators act.

  • Lu Kang (through translator):

    The CAAC has clearly stated that they will ask Chinese aviation companies to lift the ban on commercial operation of Boeing 737 MAX 8 unless they are assured by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing company that they have taken related measures to guarantee safe travel.

  • John Yang:

    The FAA insists the planes are safe. They say they are closely watching the probe of the Ethiopia crash. U.S. investigators are on the ground, where family and friends of the victims are sifting through debris for remains and personal items.

    Sunday's tragedy is the second deadly accident in five months where a 737 MAX 8 crashed just after takeoff. In October, a Lion Air flight crashed, killing all 189 people on board. The cause is still under investigation.

    Attention has focused on an automated flight control feature designed to avoid what's called a stall. A stall can happen if a plane's nose points too high and loses the ability to fly. The 737 MAX 8's autopilot is designed to sense when that is a danger and automatically push the nose down. Pilots can override the system by shutting the autopilot off.

    While insisting the plane is safe as it is now, the FAA says it expects to order fixes to the system no later than April. The changes have reportedly been delayed by disagreements between Boeing and federal regulators about how extensive they should be.

    About 350 Boeing 737 MAX 8's are in operation worldwide; 58 of them are operated by two U.S.-based airlines, Southwest and American. Both carriers are continuing to operate the jets.

    On Capitol Hill, a growing number of lawmakers say the FAA should ground the planes and look into the issue.

  • Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal:

  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal D-Conn.:

    These planes are accidents waiting to happen, until there is some assurance that either pilots have been better trained or the problems with the aircraft have been fixed.

  • John Yang:

    President Trump weighed in, saying: "Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but, rather, computer scientists from MIT."

    But the president didn't publicly call on the FAA to act differently.

    We are joined by Mary Schiavo. She is a former Transportation Department inspector general. She is now a lawyer representing survivors and victims' families in airline accidents. That includes a case against Boeing stemming from the 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

    Mary Schiavo, thanks so much for joining us.

    Just a little bit ago, the FAA put out a statement repeating that they find no systematic performance issues and no basis to order the grounding of this aircraft.

    What is your reaction to that?

  • Mary Schiavo:

    Well, the two planes have already crashed. We don't know the cause yet of the second one, and FAA's own warnings to Boeing concerning the repairs that were needed after the Lion Air crash said that there was a risk of impact with terrain.

    So, it's impossible to say that they're safe, when two have already crashed and we don't know why for the second one. It's completely impossible, oxymoronic.

  • John Yang:

    We should note that we asked the FAA to give us someone to talk to, and they turned us down.

    But they say that that's precisely why, the fact that they don't know the answer to what caused these two crashes is precisely why they are not ordering the grounding.

  • Mary Schiavo:

    Well, if you don't know why planes are falling out of the sky, what you're doing is betting with passengers' lives and other lives that it won't happen again.

    And that's not the purpose of safety regulations. The purpose of safety regulations — remember, an aircraft certification says that the plane is safe to fly. It doesn't say, we don't know why it's falling out of the sky, so we're going to leave it there. It's completely the opposite of what safety regulators are supposed to do.

  • John Yang:

    And the FAA also says, it's safe the fly now.

    But, at the same time, they're talking about modifications to this stall-avoidance system. And we're also told that there are discussions between Boeing and the FAA about the parameters of this fix.

    Help us understand the relationship between regulators and the regulated.

  • Mary Schiavo:

    Well, unfortunately, you know, in the case of the FAA and Boeing and other manufacturers and major carriers, it's a very symbiotic relationship.

    But the FAA has over the years really come to defer to Boeing and other manufacturers, Airbus, et cetera, and to the airlines. And so on issues such as this, the FAA often takes its cues and its direction from Boeing, not for sinister reasons, not because somebody is on the take, but because Boeing has the greater expertise.

    And, over the years, when I was inspector general, we had many investigations, including on the certification of the 777, that showed that the FAA just didn't have the firepower, didn't have the expertise and the training and the ability to go toe to toe with Boeing and other issues in manufacturers over complex computer issues.

    And that's what this is. They put a computer modification on a plane to keep it from stalling, didn't tell the pilots and train them, and then after a second one went down, now the FAA says they're going to order Boeing to make changes to that computer system by April.

    So, in the meantime, is it safe? Well, not according to the FAA. It can cause impact with terrain.

  • John Yang:

    Impact with terrain, a euphemism for a crash.

    You asked that question, is it safe? You wrote in a blog today, earlier today, that you wouldn't be comfortable flying on this model aircraft. Why?

  • Mary Schiavo:

    Well, because we don't know why two have fallen out of the sky, and we don't know why. And to me that says you shouldn't be on it until we do know why. And they will very soon.

    In some ways,this is just astonishing that people have not been more proactive. Those black boxes are the best there are. They're the top-of-the-line models. They're the newest ones. They have probably downloaded them already. And literally within a week, we will know a cause and can say — at that point, we can say whether or not the airplane is safe.

    At this point, it's the whole reason we have a black box, to solve the mystery, so we can say whether it's safe or not. So, for me, no, I wouldn't get on it until we know.

  • John Yang:

    And what advice would you give to the traveling public?

  • Mary Schiavo:

    Oh, the traveling public. I mean, the Internet has blown up with this. The traveling public is already searching for their own and making their own decisions. They're being smart consumers and voting with their feet.

    They're all asking, how do I find out if my plane is one of these, and can I re-book, get off, or cancel?

  • John Yang:

    Mary Schiavo, former inspector general at the Transportation Department, thank you very much.

  • Mary Schiavo:

    Thank you.

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