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LaHood says Boeing, FAA too slow to ground 737 Max jets after crashes

Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration were accused Friday of being asleep at the switch when it came to grounding Boeing 737 Max jets involved in two crashes that killed 346 people in less than six months.

Republican Ray LaHood, the former Peoria congressman who served as transportation secretary during Barack Obama’s first term, said Chicago-based Boeing should have grounded its own fleet of 737 Max jets the moment Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed into a farm field about 40 miles from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 passengers and crew.

If Boeing was slow to make that decision, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao should have made it for them — long before a parade of more than 40 countries around the world grounded the 737 Max jets, LaHood said in an interview Friday.

“They waited too long — absolutely. Totally. . . . When Africa, when Europe, when Asia decides to ground all their planes — we’ve always led. We have one of the best safety aviation records in the world. We should be leading. And we weren’t leading,” LaHood told the Sun-Times.

In reversing its early decision to allow jets to remain in the air, the FAA cited new satellite evidence that showed the movement of Flight 302 was similar to those of Lion Air Flight 610, which killed 189 passengers and crew in October after it crashed into the Java Sea off Indonesia.

“I’m shocked that Boeing didn’t see that. And I’m shocked that the FAA didn’t say ‘Ground the planes, let’s inspect them, give the flying public 100 percent assurance that they’re safe.’ It’ll be a better plane. And, it’ll help Boeing and help Boeing’s reputation for safety,” LaHood said.

Representatives for Boeing and the FAA could not be immediately reached for comment about LaHood’s remarks.

LaHood stopped short of saying the safety of the flying public was put in jeopardy by the slow-paced U.S. response.

Speculation about the cause of the Ethiopian Airlines crash has centered around faulty software, which the company is updating.

“The public wasn’t gonna fly those planes anyway. You had everybody checking [with] their travel people [and asking], ‘What kind of plane am I on?’ ” he said.

LaHood said he’s not at all surprised that Trump got in the regulatory cockpit himself and ordered the 737 Max jets grounded.

“He owns an airplane. At one time, he tried to start an airline. He knows the importance of safety. He heard all of the background noise going on about safety and these planes needed to be grounded. And I think he just said, ‘We’re gonna do this,'” LaHood said.

Boeing said this week it supports the decision to ground the planes as a precautionary step.

The company, which moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago in 2001 with a $61 million incentive package from the city and state- — also expressed “full confidence” in the safety of the 737 Max jet. The software upgrades are simply an effort to make the jet even safer, Boeing has said.

On Friday, LaHood likened the back-to-back crashes involving the 737 Max jet to what happened on his watch as transportation secretary.

He grounded the Boeing-made Dreamliner because there were “fires in the hull of the plane caused by lithium batteries.”

“The hull of the plane was so hot, it heated up these batteries. There was smoke in the cockpit and a couple of fires. As soon as that happened, I talked to the FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and I said, ‘I’m gonna ground these planes. We’ve got to find out what’s going on. We’ve got to find a fix for this,'” LaHood recalled.

“I called the CEO of Boeing . . . and I explained this to him and he wasn’t happy. But, in the end, it made Boeing a better company. And it made the Dreamliner the safest plane possible. That will be the result here.”