News Brief: Boeing 737 Issues, Brexit And Democratic Presidential Race

Mar 12, 2019
Originally published on March 12, 2019 9:45 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How are different countries making such different decisions about the Boeing 737 Max 8?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. People in Australia will not be boarding those planes for a while, nor will people in China or Singapore or Indonesia. All of those countries and some airlines in other countries grounded the popular planes after two of them crashed in recent months. Federal regulators are not taking any such action here in the United States, though. The Federal Aviation Administration is calling the planes safe and airworthy. This is Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

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ELAINE CHAO: I want people to be assured that we take these accidents very seriously. We are reviewing them very carefully.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Schaper covers the aviation industry for us. David, good morning.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note, people consider the FAA almost the gold standard for aviation safety. Safety is a big deal here in the United States, but why would the FAA say this plane is fine?

SCHAPER: And we should say that air travel is just incredibly safe. It's the safest mode of transportation we have. But the FAA issued a notification late yesterday saying that it essentially just considers the 737 Max 8 to be safe and airworthy because it just has no other evidence to suggest it otherwise. They're downplaying reports that draw similarities between this accident in Ethiopia Sunday and the Lion Air flight crash in Indonesia last October, saying that the crashes - there's no evidence linking the two together. That crash in Indonesia happened shortly after takeoff, as did the one in Ethiopia over the weekend, and it appears that both pilots were struggling to keep the plane from nosediving down. And in that Lion Air crash, investigators focused on a new automated flight control system that didn't exist on previous versions of the planes, and many pilots complained that they didn't know about it and hadn't been trained on.

But again, they just - the FAA says there's no evidence that requires them to ground the fleet here in the U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao does say, however, that officials could change that posture if there (inaudible) - are you (ph) investigators on the site helping, looking into this Ethiopian crash.

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CHAO: If the FAA identifies an issue that affects safety, the department will take immediate and appropriate action.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to follow the logic here, David. I guess if there was no similarity between these two crashes, each is a one in a million kind of event. You don't generally need to worry about the plane. But if it was the same thing happening twice, then you'd have a problem. You'd have to worry about other planes. How are passengers responding to the idea that the plane seems fine?

SCHAPER: Well, many travelers are uneasy just because we don't know anything about what caused the second crash yet and if it is related. You know, there are about a couple dozen of these planes flying in the U.S. right now. Southwest has 34 of them. They have the most. American Airlines has 24, and United has 14 of a slightly different version - the Max 9 jet. And there are members of Congress who are calling on these planes to be grounded immediately, same with airline passenger organizations. Paul Hudson is with flyersrights.org, and he says it's really unprecedented to have two new planes, just months off the assembly line, crash like this. And he says the FAA is taking a big risk by not ordering the plane to be grounded.

PAUL HUDSON: I think the path is clear. We either ground them until we can have proper safety assurances, or we sit back and wait potentially for the next crash.

INSKEEP: It would be hard for people not to notice that the agency that is supporting this plane at the moment is in the same country as the company that makes it, Boeing.

SCHAPER: And Boeing has a lot on the line. You know, they've sold 5,000 models of this plane. They're on order, and it's the best-selling Boeing plane ever. The stock price dropped 5 percent on Monday, at the end of the day. That's billions in value for this company. And they've had other problems, going back to another new plane, the 787 Dreamliner, just a few years ago.

INSKEEP: David, thanks for the update.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Schaper.

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INSKEEP: Wow, the Brexit deadline is less than three weeks away.

GREENE: Yeah. British Prime Minister Theresa May says she has secured now some new concessions from the European Union. She's just returned from meetings in France last night, ahead of a crucial vote on Brexit in Parliament today. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says the EU will no longer budge.

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JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER: In politics, sometimes you get a second chance. It is what we do with the second chance that counts because there will be no third chance.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London covering this second chance. Hi there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, is this deal improved from the British point of view compared to the deals that Britain's parliament has not liked in the past?

LANGFITT: Well, and I think it's a matter of perspective. Certainly, the Prime Minister last night was saying that there's new language. Basically, what she's saying is there are these legally binding changes from Brussels that would prevent the United Kingdom being trapped permanently into an EU customs arrangement. This gets quite legalistic, but basically, she and others are saying this language gives more weight to guarantees that this customs arrangement would only be temporary. The United Kingdom is very worried about that, afraid they'll kind of never really be able to leave the European Union.

But earlier this morning, we've seen Labour opposition leaders have been picking apart the language, saying it really doesn't change that much. Jean-Claude Juncker, you just heard from there, actually told the BBC that this complements the earlier deal but not really a change, and so that's going to be a big point of debate today in the House of Commons. Does this really change anything? And I think you're going to hear different opinions.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember that the last time Parliament had a vote on this Brexit deal that was somewhat different, it was overwhelmingly defeated - not even close; not even close to close.

LANGFITT: It is. And I would say that before last night, the likelihood of this passing was extremely remote, and it looked like the prime minister was probably looking at a big, big defeat. I think this will narrow it. The question is, how much? And can she win over Brexiteers? Who have basically said, you know, if we get trapped inside the European Union customs arrangement, this violates our sovereignty. We can't cut new free trade deals with other countries. And so she really has to get enough of actually people in her own party to support her tonight to get this across the goal line. The other thing is, she'd really have to flip over a hundred votes from the last time back in January. That's a tall order. So it's going to be very interesting to see how this plays out, the debate, today in the House of Commons.

INSKEEP: Well, let's look ahead, the way you have to in a chess game. Looking several moves ahead, let's say that this measure goes before parliament, she doesn't get that hundred votes flipped, Theresa May loses, her government loses - what happens then?

LANGFITT: Well, then the next day - this will be on Wednesday - there's going to be a vote, should the United Kingdom walk away from the European Union with no deal at all? That is not expected to pass because there's really been hardly any preparations for that. It would be a significant economic cost. Businesses here are already furious, Steve, with the government allowing all of this, this huge change, to go down to the wire. And it could really affect them, could cause a lot of disruption on the border, so we don't think that that will pass either.

INSKEEP: And so then Britain would do what? If they're saying, we have no deal we like, we don't want to leave with no deal, what do they do then?

LANGFITT: Well, the last option - this could come up Wednesday or Thursday, assuming that these votes go the way some people expect - a vote to delay. And this is, of course, after two years of negotiations. Basically, the U.K. would say, we want to delay. The European Union, 27 countries would have to agree. Jean-Claude Juncker already said, you know, if we do a delay, it's not going to be for many months. It would probably be, at the latest, maybe late May, end of June, because they're European Parliamentary elections, and they - it doesn't make sense to have United Kingdom members in the European Parliament when the U.K. has actually left the European Union.

INSKEEP: Wow. Wow.

LANGFITT: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Well, we'll continue to follow these developments through the reporting of NPR's Frank Langfitt. Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Here in the United States, how many more Democrats will seek their party's presidential nomination?

GREENE: Well, it's a good question. More than a dozen have already declared, and some big names who have not made - some big names have not made official announcements yet. They include former Vice President Joe Biden, also former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke. Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for Georgia governor, also says a run is on the table.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith is with us. Tamara, are you running?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: No. No.

INSKEEP: OK.

KEITH: I am one of the only people not running, it seems.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's right. Exactly.

KEITH: But also, I'm not a Democrat.

INSKEEP: And you co-host - exactly, not a Democrat. You co-host our "Politics" podcast, as long as we're clear on that. Let's talk about the political context in which these decisions are being made. You have a vulnerable president. He's under a lot of pressure. He's under a lot of investigation by the Democratic House. Although, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, is now saying that she - she's not ruling out an effort to impeach President Trump, but she takes a dim view of it or sets a high bar. Let's listen.

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NANCY PELOSI: They wanted me to impeach President Bush for the Iraq war. I didn't believe in it then, and I don't believe in it now. It divides the country. Unless there's some conclusive evidence that takes us to that place.

INSKEEP: That's Nancy Pelosi speaking to The Washington Post. Why would she be reluctant?

KEITH: Well, I think what she's saying is that there should be a high bar, and it's what she's been saying all along, though this has generated quite some buzz in the last 24 hours or so. The investigations are ongoing. And what she's saying is, you know, this sort of thing should not be taken lightly. And there has been certainly some pushback from people on the left side of the party who want President Trump out now, but Pelosi is also making a political calculation here that impeachment without the Senate coming along to convict would potentially be a political problem for Democrats.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about the Democrats who would rather try to be the one to remove the President through conventional electoral politics. Joe Biden is talking today, is that right?

KEITH: That's right. He is speaking to the International Association of Firefighters union. He's not expected to announce that he's running, but he is expected to test out his messaging. His allies say that - well, they've been saying he was 95 percent of the way to running. Now they say it's higher than 95 percent. But again, we're not expecting an announcement today.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking of the numbers higher than 95. There's 96, there's 97...

KEITH: Not a lot of numbers.

INSKEEP: There's 99. Who knows? Who knows? Anyway, so Biden decides. Who else is out there?

KEITH: So Beto O'Rourke - he is the former Texas congressman who lost in the Senate race to Ted Cruz but has excited a lot of Democrats along the way. He is headed to Iowa this weekend to campaign for a state Senate candidate, which is something several other 2020 candidates are doing. Then, a bunch of other names floating out there - Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, former; Congressman Seth Moulton; Eric Swalwell; Montana Governor Steve Bullock. There are still a lot of names.

INSKEEP: OK. And I guess whoever gets the Democratic nomination is assured of campaigning in Wisconsin this time around, since that's where the convention will be.

KEITH: And Hillary Clinton didn't campaign there in the general election, and there are lots of regrets about that.

INSKEEP: Milwaukee is the city. Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tamara Keith.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "THREE KINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.