Guest Commentary

Dan Glickman: 737 Max fiasco shows that our zeal to deregulate has gone too far

Former Wichitan and former Kansas congressman Dan Glickman.
Former Wichitan and former Kansas congressman Dan Glickman.

Spirit AeroSystems of Wichita just announced it would be laying off 2,800 workers thanks to Boeing’s 737 Max fiasco. The 737 Max has embarrassed Boeing, a great American company, and Boeing’s CEO has been fired. Two crashes of this haphazardly designed airplane have led to 300 people’s deaths. And now, thousands of my former constituents have lost their jobs.

None of this had to happen; not the crashes, not the layoffs. If the Federal Aviation Administration had performed its duties as an effective and independent regulator of the aviation industry, and if Boeing’s management and engineering department had done its job professionally and honestly, then hundreds of lives could have been saved, share value could have been protected, and thousands of Wichita residents would still have jobs.

If the relationship between government regulator and private industry worked properly, as Congress intended when it created an independent air safety agency, the current crisis would have been avoided. Instead the commercial aviation industry has become subject to a weak regulatory system, with too much power and authority delegated to the companies it regulates. All as part of a collective zeal to “get the government off our backs.”

I grant this: Human beings aren’t perfect, and mistakes will always happen. But the point of having a regulator for an industry is to cut down on the instances when it’s not just accidental human error but willful and intentional corner cutting. Lots of politicians rail against regulations, and there are some regulations that are unnecessary. But regulations that guarantee the safety of air travel is not one of them. Our regulatory system is there to protect the public safety of air passengers, and this system has failed. The FAA is empowered to certify the airworthiness of a plane, but thanks to the move to self-regulatory practices in recent years, Boeing and other companies control too much of the process. So the FAA is largely dependent on Boeing to be honest about any design flaws in an aircraft and hope they won’t cut corners to get a plane in service before it is ready.

Our zeal to deregulate has gone too far. When I hear people exploit the specter of “regulation” of industry, I will now think of the 2,800 Kansans that need a job. Politicians, pundits, and voters need to realize that the FAA is there to save lives, and to maintain public trust in commercial aviation, which tens of millions of people rely on every day of their lives. The impact of the 737 Max fiasco has led to a further loss in the public trust of the regulatory process. This is serious stuff that risks the lives of the flying public and puts a lot of folks out of work, not to mention the damage done to Boeing, one of America’s great iconic companies.

We now have a new Boeing CEO, who can hopefully lead us out of this mess and get folks back to work. But we need an FAA that is empowered to regulate aircraft manufacturers. And we need good leadership based on integrity and honesty from Boeing. But the bigger lesson is that safe air transportation, as well as safe food, clean air, and a strong but fair financial system, require a fair but effective, strong, independent federal regulatory system where the public interest always comes first. Let federal regulators do their job, which is to keep the American public safe.

Dan Glickman is vice president of the Aspen Institute and director of its congressional program. A former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, he represented Kansas’ 4th District in the U.S. Congress for 18 years.