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Global Airlines Worry About Havoc Caused by a Boeing 737 Max Regulatory Rift

Brian Sumers
Global Airlines Worry About Havoc Caused by a Boeing 737 Max Regulatory Rift

Scandinavian Airlines doesn’t fly the Boeing 737 Max, nor does it plan to order it. But its CEO, Rickard Gustafson, said he still fears a scenario that could occur later this summer, because his carrier sends many of its passengers onto United Airlines connecting flights in Chicago, Newark, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

“Let’s assume that the aircraft is approved in the U.S. and not approved in Europe,” he said in an interview at the IATA Annual General Meeting, an annual conference of airline executives. “Well, we codeshare with United. What do you tell your customers? Do you say, ‘you know, here in Europe you can’t fly it, but if you fly us to the U.S. and connect with United, it is perfectly all right?'”

It’s a unique situation. There have been multiple crashes of the same aircraft type before, and regulators have grounded planes they viewed as unsafe. But they usually have done so in lockstep, so flights would stop and start everywhere at roughly the same time. Often regulators defer to safety agencies where the aircraft is built, such as the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States for Boeing-made planes.

That’s less likely to happen here. The two recent Max crashes have shown that there are major differences in how regulators view Max aircraft. While the FAA eventually  grounded the airplane after an Ethiopian Airlines crash in March, it was among the last regulatory agencies to do so. Officials in China and Europe moved faster.

Many airline executives in Seoul said the same may happen in reverse when the aircraft flies again. They said they expect U.S. regulators to lift restrictions first, with officials in other countries waiting longer. European regulators have said they intend to make their own determination about airworthiness.

No one knows exactly when the first Max again will fly paying passengers. U.S. airlines have suggested August as a possible time for their aircraft to resume flying, but Emirates President Tim Clark, whose airline does not fly the Max, told reporters in Seoul he wasn’t sure it would be back in the air this year.

In a panel discussion Sunday, Singapore Air CEO Goh Choon Phong said he expects Singapore will lag behind regulators in the United States. That means it could be awhile before Singapore Air’s regional arm, Silk Air, can return the jets to service.

Goh said he would prefer regulators work together to reach “the right solution that is safe for the industry and safe for everyone who is traveling.”

New Normal?

While this issue of regulators reaching different conclusions could be an isolated problem, there’s some concern this is aviation’s new normal. That could be problematic long-term, insiders said in Seoul.

American Airlines, for example, might be able to fly its Max airplanes within the United States but not to Latin America, at least at first, depending on what happens.

“Any rift between regulators is not in anyone’s interest,” IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac told delegates at the meeting.

It some ways the rift may make sense. Different governments regulate various industries in their own ways. Some have more tolerance for risk than others.

But aviation is global, and airline executives expect, for the most part, the rules in one country will be the same as in another. It’s why many airline executives, including those whose airlines do not fly the Max, said in Seoul that they’re concerned about this trend, with regulators making their own decisions about what is safe.

“Global standards in terms of safety is very important,” Finnair CEO Topi Manner said in an interview. “Being more market specific or being more regional in these considerations would lead to complexity, and complexity in itself would be a risk. That’s something we need to be observant about.”

At a media briefing in Seoul, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said he agreed. His airline does not fly the Max, but he said he would prefer regulators come to the same conclusion on major safety issues.

“I think it is very important that the regulators around the world unite and make a unified determination regarding the safety of the Max,” Bastian said. “Keeping politics out of safety matters is important. … I would hope they would make those decisions together and also quickly.”

Bastian said he fears consumer confidence in the United States might be affected if the FAA is the only jurisdiction that clears the airplane.

“I think the biggest issue with Max, once the FAA decides to release it back into operation, is consumer confidence,” Bastian said. “The more that the regulatory bodies on an international scale can stand up and support it, I think it will enhance customer confidence in that product.”

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