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After 2 Crashes, Safety Concerns Are Raised About Boeing's 737 Max 8


The secretary of transportation offered some basic advice after two Boeing plane crashes - aviation remains broadly safe, and Elaine Chao sees no reason yet to ground the Boeing 737 MAX 8.


ELAINE CHAO: I want people to be assured that we take these accidents very seriously. We are reviewing them very carefully.

INSKEEP: Other countries have seen enough for now. But the U.S. says it's too early to stop flights by the 737 MAX 8 although two planes in five months have gone down, soon after takeoff in each case. NPR's David Schaper covers aviation. He's on the line.

Hi there, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How is the FAA approaching this?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, the FAA is waiting to learn more. They have investigators onsite in Ethiopia helping with the investigation that is being led by the Ethiopian authorities. But they have been taking steps along the way. They don't see any reason to ground the 737 MAX 8 plane just yet. But they have ordered some changes after that crash in Indonesia, the Lion Air jet that went down. There were certain things that were noticed by investigators, even though they haven't determined a final cause. They've focused on an automated flight control system that they believe may have played a role. And they've ordered some design changes - the FAA has - as a result of what was found in that investigation. So and Boeing is saying that they should have those changes made within the next couple of weeks.


SCHAPER: So there is some activity going on.

INSKEEP: So they acted based on the earlier crash, where more time has passed and more information is known. This other crash, of course, is very recent - takes time to figure it out. What do you think would cause the - trigger the FAA to say you've got to ground those planes?

SCHAPER: Well, I think if they noticed a certain flaw that was - could be repeating itself over and over again. If they have reports - and I don't know that they do - of other planes having similar problems, but they were able to correct them without a crash, they would definitely do that. You know, the FAA did do this with the - with one of Boeing's big, new jets, one of their exciting planes, the Dreamliner, the 787, a couple of years ago when they found that the batteries were catching fire. Even though there was no incidents that caused a plane to crash or any sort of significant incident, this was bad enough that the FAA did ground those planes for a couple of months until Boeing could find a fix. They did fix the problem. And those planes have been flying quite well ever since.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Schaper. Let's bring another voice into the conversation now. Sara Nelson is president of the Association of Flight Attendants, who've been raising concerns here. Good morning.

SARA NELSON: Good morning, thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Do you want your flight attendants to be boarding 737 MAX 8s?

NELSON: Well, look. We called on the FAA yesterday to immediately conduct an investigation and to work with all regulatory bodies, the manufacturers and the airlines to give us some answers here. We run the safest system in the world - the safest transportation system in the world. And it's so safe that these things just don't happen. So when you have an incident that happens five months apart from each other that have very similar characteristics, a lot of people are raising questions. And we really need some answers to be sure that we can restore confidence for the traveling public and for all the crews out there flying on these planes.

INSKEEP: Well, it sounds like the FAA is looking into it. But I guess the immediate question is whether those planes in the United States should be flying today.

NELSON: That is the immediate question. And as you reported just a few minutes ago, there is precedence for grounding those planes until there is confidence that all the issues have been resolved. And so that is a question that the FAA needs to ask. We're not directly calling for that. We want to make sure that we've got all the information from these investigations. But we need to know that answers are being given here. You know, the FAA issued a flight worthy directive - flight worthiness directive in December based on the initial findings from the Lion Air crash. And we'd like an update, for example, on what U.S. airlines have done to implement that directive. So there's a lot of information and transparency here that the FAA can provide that can help to give confidence to the crews and to the traveling public.

INSKEEP: What kinds of concerns are you hearing from the flight attendants in your organization?

NELSON: Well, the flight attendants are saying - are asking, is this safe? And when that question is out there, that's very concerning because when crews are getting on the planes, and they're not sure - and let me just say that we have the utmost confidence in U.S. pilots who are certified at high levels and will not take off on a plane if they do not feel that it's safe. But when crews are leaving this outstanding question about - what is the cause of this? What is going on here? We need some answers so that we can feel confident in getting on these planes. And those questions are continuing to grow. They're not being subsided here. I'm glad to see that there is some movement in just even the past couple hours with the FAA. And I think that we need to step that up and make sure that we're allaying all concerns.

INSKEEP: If individual flight attendants are uncomfortable getting on the plane, would you support them?

NELSON: Individual flight attendants have that right today. And, of course, we support them in that. And so they know that. They know that they can raise the issue. And they can do that if they need to. We're not calling on anyone to do that, and we're not encouraging that. But they certainly have that right.

INSKEEP: Sara Nelson, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

NELSON: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: She is president of the Association of Flight Attendants. And NPR's David Schaper has been listening along with us. David, what did you hear there?

SCHAPER: Well, I think it's interesting that, you know, some - there are a lot of questions. I've talked to pilots who fly the 737, who fly the 737 MAX plane. And they feel confident that they now have the information. They didn't feel that way after the Lion Air crash a few months ago. They felt like Boeing had made some changes - significant changes to this new aircraft that they were not made aware of and that they were not properly trained for. They feel like, at least in this country, that they have all the information that they need. Those pilots, too, say that they will not fly a plane that they do not think is safe. And right now, at least in this country, they feel it is safe to fly the 737 MAX.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's David Schaper, thanks for your work.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.