Grounding Boeing 737 Max 8 a lesson in leadership — both good and bad

This piece originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 17, 2019.

Despite the conclusions you might draw from an “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to media coverage, there has never been a safer time to fly. What’s more, the objective truth is that commercial aviation is, by far, our safest form of transit.

In 2017, airlines recorded zero accident deaths on passenger jets.

That number was higher in 2018, largely owing to an accident involving a Boeing 737 Max 8, in Indonesia. And, following last weekend’s tragic crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, involving the same model of aircraft — higher still in 2019.

Historically, the number of fatalities has been so low that even a single accident, has skewed the numbers. The result? The industry enjoys a high level of trust among its passengers.

But two crashes, bearing even a hint of similarity, become more than enough to frighten regulators and the public alike. That mounting fear, coupled with “new data,” proved sufficient evidence for Transportation Minister Marc Garneau to ground Canada’s fleet of Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft this week.

It could hardly have been an easy decision. Air Canada, alone, relies on the aircraft to safely ferry 9,000 to 12,000 customers, per day. The economic cost to Canadian carriers has been estimated at $100 million in the first 10 days. As a consequence, Air Canada has cancelled earnings guidance.

But these accidents are now so rare that they are almost always “black swan” incidents — improbable confluences of events that can take years to untangle. They are so rare precisely because every expectable, even remotely plausible risk has been pre-empted and eliminated through the gradual imposition of safety measures over many years. This slow and steady approach is an example of government doing its job.

With every misstep and every tragedy, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, in lockstep with peers at other national aviation authorities, have inspired confidence by making incremental progress and considering important stakeholders.

For years, the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure safe travel. But that appears to be changing.

Nineteen hours after that crash in Ethiopia, the first country to ground the apparently problematic Boeing 737 was not the United States, not the EU, but China.

That day, FAA acting administrator Daniel Elwell issued a “continued air worthiness notification,” and said there was “no basis” to ground the aircraft. Meanwhile, as investigators recovered the black box and cockpit voice recorder, these crucial pieces of evidence were not sent to the Americans, but instead to the French Bureau of Inquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety. By this point, only Canada and the United States were still allowing the 737 Max 8s to fly.

U.S. media was quick to point out that Boeing has been carefully cultivating President Trump for some time. The company is a major military contractor, and donated $1 million to his inauguration committee, not to mention some $15 million spent on lobbying efforts. CEO Daniel Muilenberg has visited Mar-a-Lago and spoke to Trump personally early in the week.

Eventually, when every single country except for the United States had grounded the plane, the FAA had no choice but to do the same, leaving the United States to “lead from behind.”

Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler observed on Twitter that, in his years of covering airline safety, he “cannot remember a time when the FAA was so alone among world regulators on a serious safety issue. When a major accident like this happened, global aviation authorities conferred with the FAA — which took the lead.” But as with so many American institutions, in the age of President Trump, the FAA has seen its moral authority eroded.

On Wednesday, Minister Garneau was asked whether Canada’s delayed action was the result of pressure from Boeing or the American government. His response was that this decision required him to remove his “politician’s hat,” and don his “engineer’s hat,” removing politics and emotion from technical analysis.

His remarks reminded me how lucky Canadians are to have the steady, rational hand of a former Navy combat systems engineer and astronaut on the policy rudder.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt