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U.S. Airlines That Fly Boeing 737 Max 8 Say They Don't Plan To Ground Their Fleets


We're going to turn now to NPR's Russell Lewis to bring us up to date on this story.

And, Russell, what more have you learned about the ongoing investigations?

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Well, Boeing reiterated today that the 737 MAX fleet - it is safe and that the company has full confidence in the safety of the aircraft.

There've been no new details about the ongoing investigations from that Lion Air crash in Indonesia last October and the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday. You know, those two accidents - they killed everybody on board, a total of 346 people. In both of those instances, just minutes after takeoff, pilots of both aircraft complained of flight control problems, and they asked to return to their airports they just left from.

Also, the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, issued no new guidance about the investigations or any possible grounding of the aircraft. And that's very different to what we saw in Europe today.

CORNISH: Right. Tell us how they approached this.

LEWIS: Yeah, quite a bit different than what we saw here in the United States. I mean, all day long, it seemed like every 10 or 20 minutes, there was a new alert that regulators in the United Kingdom, France and elsewhere started banning all 737 MAX flights within their country's airspace. And, you know, at the same time, airlines around the world continue to ground their fleets of the Boeing workhorse. In fact, some planes that were already in the air today were turned around and sent back to their original destinations.

But really, the biggest development so far was that Europe's top safety regulator, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, suspended operations of the 737 MAX 8 and the MAX 9. And as we've said, that includes all flights into, within and out of the European Union. And clearly, that puts the pressure and the focus on the FAA as the agency that originally certified the airplane as safe.

CORNISH: At this point, can it be said that the planes are unsafe?

LEWIS: Well, you know, these upgraded 737 MAX planes have been flying for almost two years. There have literally been hundreds of thousands of flights safely completed.

I mean, take Southwest Airlines, for example. It is the biggest operator of the MAX 8 in the U.S. Southwest has 34 of these jets in its inventory, which is just 5 percent of its overall fleet. Southwest said today that its aircraft have completed 41,000 flights and that each aircraft produces what they say is thousands of data points during each flight, which are constantly monitored. The president of Southwest's pilots' union also said he has complete confidence in the airplane, and he would not hesitate to put his family on board.

So there is a disconnect between what's happening in the U.S. and the rest of the world, certainly. But at the same time, though, the flight attendants' union of American Airlines called today on the CEO to ground American's MAX aircraft until, quote, "a thorough investigation can be performed."

And we should point out, too, that yesterday the FAA ordered Boeing to make some software changes to a flight control system. Those are based on some initial findings of the Lion Air crash from last October.

CORNISH: What does this mean for travelers? Essentially, are they being told to just sit tight and wait for these investigations to finish before demanding action be taken?

LEWIS: Well, you know, I think that's a harder question because, you know, historically in the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB, investigates accidents and then makes safety recommendations based on what it learned. And those recommendations are sent to the FAA to take action or not.

You know, but these investigations - they take time, sometimes two years or more before it's, you know, finally completed. But these are reports that are grounded in facts, not emotion, not fear. And it is one reason why the U.S. aviation industry is in the middle of one of its safest periods ever. It has been 10 years since the last fatal plane crash of a U.S. carrier.

That said, there is a lot of fear out there, people not knowing whether they should fly on these planes or not. You have seasoned experts saying it's totally safe and other experts saying just the opposite.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Russell Lewis. Russell, thanks for your reporting.

LEWIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.