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Editorial : US's undermined authority in global aviation safety

【明報專訊】BOEING's new state-of-the-art 737 Max 8 jetliner crashed twice within just half a year. Many countries have ordered that passenger aircraft of the same model be suspended or grounded. However, Washington insists that the 737 Max is still airworthy. The intricate relationship between Boeing and Washington is in the spotlight again. In the past, the decisions of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set the global standards. By ordering that the plane be grounded, countries around the world have cast a vote of no-confidence in Washington and the FAA. The authority of the US as the global leader in aviation safety has been undermined. Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department initially followed whatever the FAA did and was slow in making a decision to ban the 737 Max. A review is necessary.

After the Lion Air crash last year, another Boeing Max 8 aircraft, this time from Ethiopian Airlines, has crashed recently. China was the first to respond by ordering all mainland airlines to ground aircraft of the same model. Singapore, Germany, France, Australia, the European Union and Canada etc made similar decisions. Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department later decided to ban all Boeing 737 Max aircraft from landing in, taking off from or flying over Hong Kong. In contrast, the FAA issued a notice of "continued airworthiness" to the Boeing 737 Max model a day after the accident.

Boeing accounts for over 10% of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Grounding all Boeing 737 Max aircraft would definitely deal a blow to the US stock market. US President Donald Trump, who keeps a close watch on the stock market, of course does not want this to happen. Boeing is not only one of the biggest employers in the US, but also a major arms supplier with a cozy relationship with Washington. The current acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was a former Boeing executive. Boeing wields tremendous political and economic influence in the US. In contrast, as the regulator of the US aviation industry, the FAA's situation has been in increasing difficulty in recent years. The White House has cut the FAA's budget for two consecutive years. The FAA's acting administrator Daniel Elwell, a Trump appointee, was a lobbyist for the aviation industry. All this has aroused public concern regarding the FAA's ability to regulate the aviation industry.

In the last few decades, the US aviation industry has occupied a leading position in the global market. Any international airline that wants to gain a footing in the US must abide by FAA standards. The international community has confidence in the FAA's professional judgement as well. The FAA used to appoint experts outside the industry to certify aviation safety standards. However, due to budgetary constraints, since 2005 the FAA has been allowing Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers to employ their own employees as "certification experts". In other words, the aircraft manufacturers are certifying themselves. Jim Hall, former chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board, has pointed out that the main problem now is that the FAA, as a regulator, has too close a relationship with Boeing. "The manufacturer essentially becomes both the manufacturer and the regulator," he said.

The fact that all the countries have cast a vote of no-confidence in Washington and the FAA is a warning sign for Trump who always emphasises that US interests should come first. The Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department should also reflect on whether the way it dealt with the ban has shown enough independent and critical thinking. After many countries decided to ban the 737 Max 8, the Civil Aviation Department continued to allow the 737 Max 8 to take off from and land in Hong Kong, saying that "the US said that it was still airworthy". It made a U-turn hastily later. Such performance is hardly ideal.

明報社評2019.03.14:美航空安全權威動搖 香港禁飛決定慢半拍

波音新貴737 MAX 8型客機,短短半年兩遇空難,世界各地相繼暫時停飛、禁飛同款客機,惟華府堅持737 MAX仍然適合飛行,波音與華府千絲萬縷關係再成焦點。美國聯邦航空管理局(FAA)的決定,向為全球準繩,今次多國頒下停飛令,實際是向華府和FAA投下不信任票,美國航空安全領導權威動搖,本港民航處起初仍以FAA馬首是瞻,禁飛決定慢了半拍,有需要檢討。

繼去年底印尼獅子航空空難,日前埃塞俄比亞航空又有一架波音MAX 8客機墜毀。事後中國率先下令內地航空公司停飛同款客機,之後新加坡、德國、法國、澳洲、歐盟、加拿大等亦有類似決定,本港民航處也決定暫禁波音737 MAX型飛機進出或飛越香港,然而空難翌日美國FAA卻發出「持續適航通知」。

波音佔道指比重超過一成,全面停飛肯定重挫美股,總統特朗普向來緊盯股市走勢,當然不想見到此情况。波音除了是美國最大僱主之一,亦是主要軍火供應商,與華府關係密切,現任署理國防部長沙納漢亦是波音前高層。波音政經影響力非比尋常,反觀FAA作為美國航空業監管者,近年處境愈益艱難,白宮連續兩年削減FAA預算撥款,特朗普任命的署理局長埃爾韋爾,過去是航空業界說客,凡此種種均令外界關注FAA的監管能力。

過去數十年,美國航空業稱雄全球,所有國際航空公司要在美國立足,必須遵守FAA的標準,國際社會亦相信FAA的專業判斷。過去FAA會指派業外專家,負責飛機安全標準認證,然而由於財政緊絀,2005年FAA容許波音等飛機製造商,起用自己的僱員作為「認證專家」,「自己認證自己」。美國國家運輸安全委員會前主席霍爾(Jim Hall)指出,當前一大問題是FAA身為監管者,與波音關係太親密,「結果是製造商實際兼任了監管者」。

這次各國向華府和FAA投下不信任票,對強調美國利益優先的特朗普是一個警號,本港民航處亦應反思,今次禁飛處理,起初是否不夠獨立批判。多國決定禁飛後,民航處最初仍以「美方表示適合飛行」為由,照准MAX 8在港升降,及至後來才匆匆轉軚,這種表現當然難言理想。

■Glossary

state-of-the-art : using the most modern or advanced techniques or methods; as good as it can be at the present time

footing : the basis on which sth is established

U-turn : a complete change in policy or behaviour, usually one that is embarrassing

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