Washington (CNN)-Facing mounting pressure, President Donald Trump said Wednesday his administration was ordering Boeing 737 Max jets grounded until more information is gathered about the crash of an Ethiopian aircraft.
It was a turnabout from the administration’s earlier position, which deemed the planes safe to fly even as dozens of other nations banned them after they were involved in two fatal disasters.
Trump said the decision to ground the Max 8 and Max 9 was made in light of new information about last week’s crash, which killed 157 people. The Federal Aviation Administration said new evidence had been collected at the sight of the crash on Wednesday, and that information — along with new satellite data — led to the grounding decision.
Until Wednesday afternoon, administration officials had insisted the planes were safe, bucking calls from lawmakers and airline labor unions to suspend flights until an investigation could be completed.
Even as he was announcing his administration’s decision, Trump said the move was more precautionary than mandatory.
“I didn’t want to take any chances. We didn’t have to make this decision today,” he said. “We could have delayed it. We maybe didn’t have to make it at all. But I felt it was important both psychologically and in a lot of other ways.”
Trump said his decision was fact-based, even as he admitted it was made partly with regard for the mental well-being of American travelers.
“The safety of the American people, of all people, is our paramount concern,” Trump told reporters.
Planes in the air when the announcement was made were ordered to land at their destination and remain grounded. Though Trump said airlines and pilots had been notified of the decision, one of the airlines using the plane said it was still working to confirm the order.
“We are currently seeking confirmation and additional guidance from the FAA,” a Southwest Airlines spokesman said.
Speaking with reporters on a conference call, acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said the grounding of the 737 Max 8 and 9 came in light of new information, including from the flight data recorder and voice recorder.
“Since this accident occurred we were resolute that we would not take action until we had data,” Elwell said. “That data coalesced today.”
He said the new data tied the Ethiopian airline disaster to an earlier crash of the same model plane in Indonesia.
Elwell declined to guess how long the grounding would last but he said he hoped to keep it “as short as possible:”
Trump described the airliner issue as “a terrible, terrible thing” and defended the jet’s manufacturer, which he has maintained close ties to over the course of his presidency.
“Boeing is an incredible company,” he said. “They are working very hard right now.”
He said the company was looking to find answers to the plane issue, but “until they do, the planes are grounded.”
Close ties between Boeing and Trump administration
The global grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max 8 airliner had drawn new attention to the close ties between the manufacturer and the Trump administration.
Trump has touted Boeing sales across the globe — including two weeks ago in Vietnam — and has cultivated close relationships with the company’s executives. His acting defense secretary served atop the company for more than three decades, including as the newly scrutinized planes were being developed. The company has spent millions over the past years lobbying decision-makers in Washington.
Now, as Boeing faces crumbling public confidence in one of its marquee products, those ties are being viewed in a new light.
Trump spoke by phone Wednesday with CEO Dennis Muilenburg ahead of his grounding announcement, which came during a session on drug trafficking.
A day earlier, Muilenburg assured Trump in a separate phone call the 737 Max 8 was safe, despite the two recent crashes. Hours after that call, the FAA said it remained confident in the planes, even as governments across Europe and Asia grounded them.
That view changed by midday, as Canada’s minister of transport said the country would no longer allow Boeing 737 Max 8 or 9 aircraft to take off or land in Canada. A day earlier, the European Union suspended operations of the model. That followed announcements from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East declaring use of the plane forbidden, for now.
Startling real-time flight tracking maps showed the plane flying only over North America — and nowhere else — as the White House and the FAA continued to deem the aircraft safe.
While the President was not explicitly pushing for the grounding over the last 24 hours, Canada’s decision made it untenable for the US to hold out, according to an official familiar with the matter.
The President was eager to act given the public pressure, the official said, but it was the satellite data that finalized the decision on the grounding order.
Despite the initial reluctance to ground the planes, Trump insisted on Wednesday his administration had acted quickly and “fact-based” in response to the crash, which occurred on Sunday.
Democratic and GOP lawmakers had been agitating for a ban on the plane. Senators calling for a temporary grounding of the planes included Republicans Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential nominee, and Ted Cruz, who chairs a subcommittee on aviation and space. Sen. Roger Wicker, another Republican, announced the Commerce Committee he chairs would hold a hearing on the matter.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the partial government shutdown at the start of the year may have affected the FAA’s ability to execute planned software changes on the Max 8 planes. But the FAA’s Elwell denied the shutdown affected anything.
“We just got confirmation that the shutdown did not cause any delay in work on the software — the software addition to the MAX,” he told reporters Wednesday.