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What new information led FAA to ground Boeing’s 737 MAX jets?

Boeing’s 737 MAX jetliners are grounded across much of the globe -- including the U.S. Days after other nations banned the plane from flying in their airspace, the FAA, which had as recently as Tuesday night insisted the plane was safe, said new information about Sunday's Ethiopian Airlines crash led it to change course. John Yang reports, and Judy Woodruff talks to Miles O’Brien for analysis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Boeing's 737 MAX passenger jetliner is grounded across much of the globe tonight, including the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration took that step for the U.S. today, after dozens of other nations had already done so.

    It followed Sunday's deadly crash of a 737 MAX in Ethiopia. John Yang begins our coverage.

  • John Yang:

    President Trump made the announcement himself.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Boeing is an incredible company. They are working very, very hard right now. And hopefully they will very quickly come up with the answer. But, until they do, the planes are grounded.

  • John Yang:

    As the president spoke, more than two dozen of the planes were in flight over the United States. Once they landed, they are on the ground until further notice.

    As recently as last night, the FAA rejected calls to ground the jet after two fatal crashes in five months. The most recent was Sunday, when an Ethiopian Airlines plane plunged to the ground, killing 157 people.

    Today, acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said the agency reversed course after new data indicated similarities between Sunday's crash and October's crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX in Indonesia that killed 189 people.

  • Daniel Elwell:

    The evidence found on the ground made it even more likely that the flight path was very close to Lion Air's.

  • John Yang:

    The FAA had been virtually alone in not grounding the plane. That isolation grew this morning when Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau acted.

  • Marc Garneau:

    All I can say is that, based on the new information that we got this morning, that was enough to cause us to make this decision. The Americans will do their own thing.

  • John Yang:

    Today, Boeing said it continues to have full confidence in the plane's safety, but supported the FAA's action; 72 of the grounded airliners are operated by three U.S.-based carriers, American, Southwest and United. Tonight, they are scrambling to substitute other planes and rebook passengers from canceled flights.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's look further at this decision and its impact with our own Miles O'Brien.

    So, hello, Miles.

    Tell us, first of all, what is this new information that came out overnight?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, Judy, it's interesting. It's a direct outgrowth of the loss of MH-370 five years ago, the 777 that left from Kuala Lumpur and was lost and remains lost.

    There was a mandate to the airline industry to come up with better tracking capabilities. A company called Aerion, in conjunction with Flight Tracker, developed some of this capability and has brought it to market.

    And this gave the FAA and anybody who could look at this data a much more granular look at what happened to that aircraft after it left, after it departed. And that gave them, as they put it, the fidelity. Presumably, that matched up pretty closely to what we saw in October with the Lion Air crash. And that left them with this decision.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you're talking about a satellite image of what happened to the plane between the time that it took off and it crashed?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, a more detailed image that gave them much more specificity about what that aircraft was doing in its short flight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the FAA official, Miles, also cited evidence on the ground. Do we know what that's a reference to?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They were not specific on it. Maybe there was something in the wreckage which might have caused them to pause, the nature of the crash, the fact that it apparently came in almost exactly perpendicular to ground, nose — going fast and nose down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Miles, this decision comes by the United States after, what, more than 40 other countries had already made the decision, including Canada, as we reported.

    Any explanation for why it took longer for the U.S.?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A lots of public pressure here, lots of political pressure, lots of global pressure. Why the pushback? It's hard to say exactly what was going on behind closed door at the FAA.

    But I will tell you this. It became increasingly evident they had an untenable situation. In October, Boeing and the FAA agreed that there was a fleetwide problem with these aircraft, that the software was incorrect. The sensor was not feeding it good information. It needed multiple sensors to be safer.

    And yet there was no grounding at that time. It occurs to me that if a piece of hardware, a wing or an engine had fallen off, they would have grounded it immediately. But the software was broken. And they said, well, we will fix it by April.

    So perhaps it became clear to them that they weren't recognizing the seriousness of this software problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there was also a question tied into that about whether the U.S. government shutdown, which lasted over a month, might have in some way contributed to the delay in the software fix.

    The FAA was denying that today, though.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They do deny that. It's hard to know, again, what was going on inside the FAA at that time. But the fact that they identified a fleetwide problem, albeit software, a problem that caused the deaths of people, and the FAA said, well, let the planes fly, we will fix them in April, is something that I think ultimately became difficult for the FAA and for Boeing to explain.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Miles, these planes are grounded. What happens now? And what determines when the planes are safe to fly again? What are the factors that are going to go into this?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, first of all, it's a relatively small part of the fleet. Southwest Airlines has the most of them. I think they have a little over 30 of these aircraft in their fleet, but they have a fleet of over 750.

    So they will be able to modify their schedule using spare aircraft and modifying schedules and so forth. The big picture, what lies ahead here, how long it will take, it's kind of first do no harm. You want to fix the software, but you don't want to create any unintended consequences.

    And so it needs to be done in a very deliberate manner. That said, there is a commercial component to this. This is a bottom-line thing. And the FAA will work as quickly as possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So it's the software fix, but it's much more than that now.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Exactly. It's a software fix, but it's flight-critical. So these things have to be tested, retested, certified before they're introduced into the fleet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Miles O'Brien, we thank you.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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