Flying in a commercial airliner is extraordinarily safe. Not only that, but it is also much safer than it used to be - worldwide accident deaths fell from 2,373 in 1972 to none in 2017 - and indeed much safer than riding in a car. This seems like a miracle, given the complexity of moving millions of people all over the world every day, but it is actually the result of hard work by skilled professionals who, over decades, assessed accidents and applied lessons learned. Crucial to this process has been objectivity and impartiality - actual and perceived.
In that sense, President Donald Trump’s decision Wednesday to ground all 74 Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft in the U.S. commercial fleet represents a mixed blessing. No doubt it’s better to be safe than sorry; two of the 350 planes in service worldwide have crashed a few months apart in Indonesia and Ethiopia, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) explained that Trump was acting on “new evidence” that showed “some similarities” between the two crashes, suggesting a possible “shared cause.”
However, the process that brought Trump to this conclusion was erratic. Though not an expert on flying (despite his previous ownership of a failed airline), Trump responded to the Ethiopian crash, which killed 157 people on Sunday, by musing on Twitter about purported technological excesses of contemporary aircraft. Worse, the president took a phone call from the chief executive of Boeing, one of the most politically influential companies in the country, who insisted that the planes were safe. Meanwhile, every other nation, including close U.S. aviation partners such as Canada and Britain, was barring the planes, and senators and other politicians of both U.S. parties were urging the FAA to do the same.
In short, for two crucial days, the United States could not inspire other countries with confidence but, in the end, found itself following their lead, at one of the most critical moments for commercial aviation safety of the 21st century. Though Trump, like any president, is ultimately accountable for his administration’s record, he had no business thrusting himself personally into a safety decision that other presidents normally, and wisely, have left to professionals.