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The FAA's Relationship With Airlines And Manufacturers Is Under Scrutiny, Again


Today in Paris, French aviation authorities began examining the cockpit voice and flight data recorders of an Ethiopian Airlines jet. Analysts from the National Transportation Safety Board have joined them as they try to figure out why the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashed Sunday not long after takeoff.


Late yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered the 737 MAX fleet grounded after dozens of countries and airlines had already done so. As NPR's Russell Lewis reports, the FAA's close relationship with the airlines and the manufacturers it regulates is under scrutiny once again.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Today at Ronald Reagan National Airport outside Washington, FAA acting administrator Daniel Elwell was defending his agency's delayed decision to ground the 737 MAX fleet.


DANIEL ELWELL: 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.

LEWIS: Elwell was speaking on NPR's Morning Edition. He said the FAA acted yesterday because it received some additional analysis of satellite tracking information. It showed similarities to the flight profile of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last October. The move could not come soon enough for concerned passengers in the U.S. and amid growing calls from advocates. Bill McGee works for Consumer Reports. He says the FAA needs to be more proactive.

BILL MCGEE: These are systemic problems that the FAA is not the watchdog that it should be - we have found time and again when it comes to airline maintenance and airline operations.

LEWIS: In fact, the FAA houses some inspectors inside facilities of the manufacturers it regulates. It's designed to speed approvals and inspections, but that has long drawn the criticism of Congress.


JAMES OBERSTAR: FAA needs to rethink its relationship with the airlines and with the other aviation entities which it regulates.

LEWIS: That's the late Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar at a hearing in 2008. The FAA traces its origins back to the 1920s when it became part of the Commerce Department. For decades, the agency referred to the companies it regulated as its customers. That closeness between regulator and regulated isn't necessarily bad, says John Cox. He's a former airline pilot who now leads the consulting group Safety Operating Systems. He says the FAA uses a partnership approach that works.

JOHN COX: So that things that came up, mistakes that get made, improvements that could be made - there is a cooperative effort to address that.

LEWIS: Cox points to the overall safety of aviation in the United States. The last fatal crash of a U.S. airliner was a decade ago. The FAA says it has achieved this record because the agency has continually evolved how it approaches safety oversight. Jim Hall is worried, though. He's a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB investigates accidents and makes recommendations for safety improvements.

JIM HALL: All the agencies and the government in Washington, D.C., is captive to the money system that runs the city. So you can't separate that from economics, the revolving door.

LEWIS: Politics aside, the focus remains on trying to understand why a pair of brand new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft crashed under similar circumstances, killing a total of 346 people. Russell Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Russell Lewis
As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.