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Boeing faces increasing political pressure to ground 737 Max 8

Elizabeth Warren weighs in through her presidential campaign, for one

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., issued a statement from her presidential campaign that Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes should be grounded, adding to a growing chorus of concern about the airplanes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., issued a statement from her presidential campaign that Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes should be grounded, adding to a growing chorus of concern about the airplanes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Amid concerns over the safety of new Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, the debate is spilling into presidential politics.

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren was among those calling for the United States to join other countries in grounding the planes on Tuesday after two crashes abroad.

In a statement issued through her presidential campaign, she asked for an investigation of whether the Federal Aviation Administration was being too deferential to the manufacturer.

“The Boeing 737 Max 8 is a major driver of Boeing profits. In the coming weeks and months, Congress should hold hearings on whether an administration that famously refused to stand up to Saudi Arabia to protect Boeing arms sales has once again put lives at risk for the same reason. But that is a question to be answered another day,” Warren said. “Today, immediately, the FAA needs to get these planes out of the sky.”

On the specific question of whether to pull the new jets from the sky, a Republican senator who used to be a Massachusetts politician, and once upon a time was the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, was in agreement.

“The right thing to do is just to ground these aircraft, so that the airlines that have them would be able to adjust schedules, and make sure that other aircraft that are not the Max aircraft that Boeing has,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said during a gaggle with reporters.

Those calls came as President Donald Trump complained that advanced models of air transport like Boeing’s were the real danger.

“Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT,” the president tweeted Tuesday, adding in a related thread: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”

While not explicitly calling for a grounding, Trump’s tweet directed attention to the issue. Prior to his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Trump’s team finalized trade deals that included Boeing 737 Max 8 sales to Vietnam. 

Also weighing in were members of Congress charged with oversight of aviation matters. Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, who sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Tuesday he would keep waiting to hear back from the FAA.

“It’s worrisome, but we have to defer to our experts,” the Democrat from Hawaii said at a news conference.

The new Boeing planes are expected to play a prominent role in Southwest Airlines’ move to serve the Hawaiian islands from the West Coast.

In the aftermath of the two crashes, the Commerce panel announced plans for a hearing into aviation safety more broadly.

“It is important to allow the FAA, NTSB and other agencies to conduct thorough investigations to ensure they have as much information as possible to make informed decisions. Thousands of passengers every day depend on the aviation system to get them safely to their destinations, and we must never become complacent with the level of safety in our system,” Chairman Roger Wicker of Mississippi said. “Therefore, the committee plans to hold a hearing reviewing the state of aviation safety to ensure that safety is maintained for all travelers.”

Boeing reiterated Tuesday that it had no reason to believe it needed to call for the grounding of the planes, despite several overseas carriers taking that step after the crashes of jets operated by Ethiopian Airlines and Indonesian carrier Lion Air, both of which killed all passengers and crew.

“Safety is Boeing’s number one priority and we have full confidence in the safety of the 737 Max. We understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets,” Boeing said. “We’ll continue to engage with them to ensure they have the information needed to have confidence in operating their fleets.”

“The United States Federal Aviation Administration is not mandating any further action at this time, and based on the information currently available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators,” the manufacturer added.

Boeing has long spent significant cash on federal lobbying given its defense and civilian businesses. The company disclosed lobbying expenses worth $15.1 million in 2018, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

That was down from $21.9 million in 2015 amid an intense congressional debate about whether to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which Boeing uses regularly to help finance global deals in their ongoing competition with Europe’s Airbus.

Former Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, who was once the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, has represented Boeing’s interests in defense policy, as has the S-3 Group, whose partners include former National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Collins and veteran GOP lobbyist and former top House Appropriations aide John Scofield.

Earlier in 2019, Boeing retained the outside lobbying firm Ballard Partners, whose partner Brian Ballard is considered close to the president.

It has also disclosed recently employing Gephardt Government Affairs, the firm of former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and the Lugar Hellmann Group, whose partner David Lugar is the son of former Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.

The company has also retained Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, whose bipartisan lobbying team includes Steven Haro, a former chief of staff to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

Speaking of Feinstein, she and fellow Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut both called for the airplanes to be grounded in statements issued Monday evening.

“All Boeing 737 Max 8s should be grounded until the FAA can assure American travelers that these planes are safe. The FAA must guarantee that all critical software updates have been delivered and pilots are well trained in their operation,” said Blumenthal, a member of the Commerce Committee. “These two catastrophic accidents — both claiming the lives of all on board — call into serious question the safety of these airplanes.”

Kate Ackley, John T. Bennett and Emily Kopp contributed to this report.

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