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Federal Aviation Administration Grounds Boeing 737 Max 8 And 9 Jets


Today the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the Boeing 737 MAX fleet from operating in the United States. It is the last major country to do so. The agency was under pressure after a pair of unexplained fatal crashes involving the MAX 8 in Indonesia last October and in Ethiopia on Sunday. Scores of countries and airlines around the world had grounded the 737 MAX before the U.S. acted. NPR's Russell Lewis has been following these developments and joins us now. Hi, Russell.


SHAPIRO: Why did the FAA order this grounding now after resisting for the last few days?

LEWIS: Well, we learned that regulators in Canada and the United States received some new satellite data from a tracking service that gave them more information. And what they found was that there were parallels between those two accidents. In addition, there was some evidence that was collected at the site of the crash that led to this decision.

And it really was a big turnaround, Ari. I mean, the FAA and the Boeing had been steadfast up until today, saying that they had seen nothing in the investigation so far that led them to believe that the plane was unsafe to fly. They kept saying that the investigations - that they needed to be completed before they could determine what went wrong in the two crashes. But the public outrage really has been growing because no one could say why these brand new airplanes were crashing.

SHAPIRO: And is there any information about how long the fleet's going to be grounded?

LEWIS: Well, you know, it really is unclear at this point of how long that this will last and when the Boeing 737 MAX fleet will be allowed to fly again. Any plane that's currently in the air now will be permitted to fly to its destination, and eventually those planes will return to their bases without any passengers onboard. You know, the FAA will make that final call on when the flight suspension will be lifted, and that's - will be done in consultation with Boeing.

SHAPIRO: So this announcement came out while there were 737 MAX flights in the air. It was very sudden. What has the response been from Boeing and the U.S. airlines that rely on these planes?

LEWIS: Well, Boeing released a statement right away. And the very first line said this - that the company continues to have the full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX. And it went on to say that because of the continued questions, though, Boeing said that it really wanted to reassure the flying public. And so it decided to recommend this temporary flight suspension not just in the U.S. but worldwide.

We should point out that there are about 370 of these planes that have been delivered globally. That's not that many. And in the U.S., only three airlines use them. It's Southwest. It's American and United. All three airlines said today that they're rebooking passengers, and they really don't expect any travel disruptions. Southwest, for instance - it operates the most in the U.S. - 34 planes, which is 5 percent of its overall fleet. So while there are few in use worldwide now, there is also an important financial consideration here. And that is that Boeing has orders for 5,000 more on their books. And it really is a key plane for the company's future.

SHAPIRO: Of course the event triggered all of this was the crash in Ethiopia on Sunday in which everybody onboard was killed. When do you expect that we'll get more details about what happened and what led to that crash?

LEWIS: Well, I mean, even preliminary findings - they're likely to still be months away. But it is actually possible that we may get a little bit more information tomorrow. The so-called black boxes - that's that the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder - they're being flown tonight from Ethiopia to France. We understand that the recorders were actually damaged pretty badly in that high-speed crash on Sunday. And there are actually only two countries that are properly trained to handle them when they're damaged like this. That's France and the United States.

There had been concern from other countries' regulators and some other airlines that the data analysis should be done by experts not in the U.S. because Boeing is a U.S. company. That said, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board - they are actually in Ethiopia along with FAA folks. They're helping them with the investigation. And as a reminder, these investigations take time. They could take many years. And almost always crashes are often the result of many small things, not one big thing. So there really is a lot to analyze and a lot to understand.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Russell Lewis, thank you.

LEWIS: You're welcome. 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.