Ethiopian Airlines crash raises questions about role of regulators

The sovereignty, integrity and role of civil aviation regulators have become the focus of debate in aviation circles since the fatal crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 last weekend.

The plane was on its way from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Nairobi in Kenya. In October, a 737 MAX 8 operated by Lion Air crashed into the Java sea shortly after takeoff.  

The SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), like the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), did not order the grounding of this aircraft model as a precaution immediately after the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

It was only days later that US President Donald Trump announced the grounding of all Boeing 737 MAX 8s. This step, supported by the manufacturer Boeing, effectively grounded all 371 of these planes in operation around the world. 

In South Africa, meanwhile, there is still not an official airworthiness directive on the SACAA website to make it mandatory to ground all MAX 8s.

Approached for comment, SACAA spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba said in the authority's view it was not necessary to issue one in SA as only Comair had a MAX 8 that was flying in and out of SA in service, and this aircraft had been voluntarily grounded.

Ledwaba emphasised that immediately after the Ethiopian Airlines crash SACAA started its engagements with Comair and Boeing.

A local aviation expert, who asked to remain anonymous, told Fin24 that questions about whether the SACAA just "slavishly" follows the FAA have been raised in online industry forums in SA.

"The whole saga again raises the question of why SA has not established an independent air accident investigation body. For the SACAA to be both the regulator and the investigator is surely a conflict of interest. Their current model gives them both of these mandates," he said.

Ledwaba, however, said these kinds of questions and resultant perception is "totally inaccurate".

"In fact, after the (Ethiopian Airlines) accident, we immediately engaged with Comair – the only SA airline operating a 737 MAX 8 - and the manufacturer, Boeing," said Ledwaba.

"After our discussion, Comair willingly opted to remove their MAX 8 from their flight schedule - a move we supported, and think is commendable."

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, James Hall, a former chair of the US National Transportation Board - the Federal agency responsible for investigating all public transport accidents – puts the question whether federal aviation regulators have perhaps allowed the airline industry to have too much power.

Hall points out that the step of grounding the MAX 8s should have been taken directly by the FAA, and not days later by Trump.

He calls for the FAA's oversight of aircraft safety to be examined by the US Congress.

On her website seasoned US aviation writer Christine Negroni, meanwhile, writes that "the decision to ground the (737 MAX 8) must surely be seen as a political one, but not one confined to the US and the pressure is probably not from politicians but pressure on them from the traveling public," she writes.

She too wonders why the FAA, given the recent history of the MAX 8, did not initially ground the plane type soon after the Ethiopian Airlines crash and that it took Trump to finally take this step.

The black boxes from the crashed Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 have since been sent to France for analysis.

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