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The History Of Grounding Planes In The U.S.


Today is the third day that Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 planes have been grounded in the U.S. The decision to ground the planes was made in response to safety concerns that grew out of the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday - 157 people were killed when minutes after take off the plane slammed into a hill. The FAA's decision lagged behind the rest of the world, but it's not the first time planes have been grounded in the U.S.

Here to talk more about past airplane groundings is Alan Levin. He covers the aviation industry and air safety for Bloomberg News. Welcome back to the program.

ALAN LEVIN: Hi, and thanks.

CORNISH: Tell us about some past groundings. I mean, how common is this in our aviation history?

LEVIN: Well, if you go back to the 1950s, the very first jetliner, the de Havilland Comet, was grounded in 1954 after two mysterious accidents in which the planes disintegrated in midair. There was a grounding of the DC-10 in the 1970s after an engine fell off in Chicago. And more recently in 2013, we had a grounding of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner as a result of battery fires on that plane. The Dreamliner was grounded for about a month or two.

CORNISH: They grab a lot of headlines. Do they end up reassuring the public or, in a way, make things worse in terms of people's fears?

LEVIN: It can kind of go both ways. The de Havilland Comet case we've mentioned from the 1950s, they brought it back. They had another accident. They had to ground it again. And if it plays out that way, it can really create fear in the traveling public. But it can play out the other way as well. You do a time out. You come up with new safety systems. And then you reintroduce the plane. And people have time to calm down and be reassured and, you know. And in the backdrop, aviation has gotten much safer so that sort of helps this whole issue as well.

CORNISH: Looking back to that time or other periods when planes have been grounded, how did they affect the airlines or the traveling public?

LEVIN: I think the 787 grounding is actually a good lesson. And who knows how it will play out here. But I remember covering it, and it was wall-to-wall coverage. People were very concerned. But after a month or so passed and they came up with a fix, and the planes were put back in service, it faded away rather quickly. And that plane has gone on to be a tremendous success for Boeing.

CORNISH: Can you talk about the significance of how this grounding played out? Because you did have the FAA and Boeing saying, look, it's safe. And then you had all these other countries basically grounding their fleets or banning the plane from their airspace. Is there something unusual about how we saw this unfold?

LEVIN: I would say everything about it was unusual. It was extraordinary. In past groundings, there's always been some sort of hard evidence of a flaw in a plane as in the 787 we discussed earlier. In this case, the groundings occurred before any evidence was brought forth in this latest crash. Now, there are people on both sides of this argument. Some people say that the Federal Aviation Administration here in the U.S. waited too long. But others say that the process needs to be evidence based. You need to have hard evidence before you start grounding planes. And they sort of imagine the chaos that would occur if planes started to be grounded based purely on fear and emotion.

CORNISH: That's Alan Levin. He covers aviation safety and regulation for Bloomberg News. Thank you for your time.

LEVIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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