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FAA Acting Head Dan Elwell On Boeing Decision


For days, the U.S. government told us it was safe to board a Boeing 737 MAX 8 plane even though that type of plane has crashed twice in five months. Other countries grounded these planes. The FAA kept disagreeing, saying they were safe - until yesterday. The Federal Aviation Administration now says it has information from the Ethiopian Airlines crash last weekend that concerns them, and the planes are now grounded here in the United States.

The man behind the FAA's decision is on the line with us. Daniel Elwell is acting administrator of the agency, and he joins us from Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for taking the time for us.

DANIEL ELWELL: Oh, good morning, David.

GREENE: So what new information did you get that led to this decision?

ELWELL: Well, late on Tuesday, the company that provided satellite data for the initial track of the aircraft - Ethiopian aircraft - on Monday morning refined the very raw data that we initially saw to create a track that was very close to what the aircraft flew. And when that happened, we were able to determine that the Ethiopian flight's profile was very similar to the Lion Air flight. And that, coupled with some physical evidence we found at the crash site, led us to believe that the similarities were too great not to consider that there was a common thread. And when you have a common thread between two accidents, then the argument for grounding becomes necessary. Grounding becomes necessary, and so that's what we did. We didn't have that link until yesterday morning, yesterday afternoon about midday.

GREENE: But isn't this something that analysts and experts have been saying for days now, that these two crashes appeared similar?

ELWELL: Yeah. Many were saying it, but nobody had data to act on it. It was all conjecture. And in aviation, the FAA in the U.S. has always acted on data. We're a data-driven organization. We have the safety record we have today based on science, risk analysis and data.

GREENE: But I just want to be clear here. I mean, you had outstanding questions. You were waiting for more answers about whether there was something really disturbing here. If that was the case, why let thousands of people board these planes over the last few days?

ELWELL: Again - a data-driven organization, we make safety decisions based on what we know. And we were waiting - hopefully - we thought that we would see the black boxes. We thought we would be getting information a lot sooner, and the black boxes were damaged. They couldn't be read in Ethiopia. And we were waiting for them to be shipped. There were some lines of data out of the black boxes that we knew would confirm or deny. Remember. If a link isn't made - you don't have a common thread, there is not a need for grounding. So once we got the data, that made that relatively clear. It's still not certain; it's an ongoing investigation. There's a lot more information we need to get. But we got enough information to make this prudent action.

GREENE: So other countries - I just want to be clear - their default was that maybe these crashes are similar. We're not going to wait for more data to come in. We're going to ground these planes out of an abundance of caution. The FAA decided there are outstanding questions. The default is let people keep flying unless we get data that makes this look worse.

ELWELL: Well, every time there's an accident, until the investigation is complete - some investigations take one, two years - there are outstanding questions. And I cannot speak for what other countries did. We did discuss the incident with other countries. Other countries who grounded the 737 MAX called us, asking us for data - for information. And we were still searching for the data we needed. They didn't have it, and so I really can't speak for the civil aviation authorities of other countries.

GREENE: I spoke this week to a former safety regulator for the FAA, your agency. His name is David Soucie. And I just want to quote him. He said, "the FAA has had the role of not only regulating but also promoting aviation. It is a contradictory role," end quote. How much were you thinking about Boeing here - not wanting to harm a major American company if there was not clear reason to act?

ELWELL: Well, first of all, the FAA does not have that dual role. It did about 30 years ago, up until the ValuJet crash. And then that dual role, which was part of our mandate, was ended - much before my time. But ever since then - for over 30 years - we do not have that role. It is purely safety and oversight.

GREENE: So were you thinking about Boeing at all here? Were you thinking about what this could do to a major American company if the decision was made prematurely?

ELWELL: The FAA makes safety decisions - period. Conversations with Boeing at the technical level - about the aircraft, what they knew or didn't know, consultation - absolutely, that took place. That always takes place with safety discussions and incidents. But that's it.

GREENE: Let me just ask you about these two crashes now, that you say appear similar. Does this kind of plane have flawed technology that forces its nose downward unexpectedly? And will you have to train pilots more before you let these planes go back up?

ELWELL: Well, training - after any accident, everything is reviewed - the aircraft, the weather, the air traffic control, the pilots, the airframe, the training, the history of the pilots. So everything is examined. And we don't know - literally, we don't know what we don't know.

GREENE: OK. Daniel Elwell is the acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, speaking to us from Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C.

Thank you very much.

ELWELL: Oh, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.