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Martin Schram

Suddenly, on Wednesday morning, the United States was standing alone against a disbelieving, distrusting world.

One by one, every country on the planet had quickly grounded Boeing’s new huge 737 Max 8 airliner – after the new aircraft’s second tragic crash in five months, on Sunday in Ethiopia.

Except President Donald Trump’s USA.

Even worse, Trump’s Federal Aviation Administration had issued a statement on Monday certifying, once again, the “airworthiness” of the Boeing 737 Max 8. Keep that in mind. Because, simultaneously, news reports were warning the world that there were chilling similarities in the two tragedies: On Sunday, the Ethiopian Airlines’ Max 8’s nose suddenly pitched downward shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157; last October, a Lion Air Max 8’s nose also pitched downward shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, killing 189 people.

Boeing had rushed to assure the world its planes were safe, saying it saw no reason for issuing any “new guidance.” Keep that in mind, too. Because Trump’s transportation officials shockingly supported Boeing’s empty safety assurances and were still permitting the three U.S. airlines that bought the Max 8s and Max 9s (the longer version) – Southwest, American and United – to keep flying them, as is.

As I began reporting and writing for this column, I kept thinking that my fingers just can’t type fast enough – because any minute now, Trump will surely reverse his policy. Because what his administration was inflicting upon a trusting public was absolutely unacceptable: By keeping those Max 8s and 9s taking off, Trump was requiring U.S. passengers on Southwest, American and United airlines to play what amounts to a cruel, white-knuckle game of USA/FAA roulette. Take a chance, the odds are you’ll be safe.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a lifelong Republican who served in that job in the Democratic Obama administration, instantly got it. He urged Trump’s Transportation Secretary Elaine Chou to order the planes grounded immediately. “Those planes should be pulled down and inspected,” LaHood said Tuesday. “The flying public is owed that.” (Indeed, LaHood grounded Boeing’s 787s in 2013, after batteries overheated.) But Secretary Chou took no such action on the Max 8s and 9s.

For three days, Trump’s administration allowed Max 8s to takeoff. What if another Max 8 crashed? There are no words. On Monday, Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke privately with Trump. We have no idea if he told the president all the truths we now realize he withheld from us.

But by Monday night, we knew that Boeing’s Muilenburg knew there were sensor problems in his Max 8’s nose that needed to be fixed. This became clear when the FAA issued a wet-noodle statement saying Boeing would be making “design changes” for the Max 8 – and they’d be completed by April.

April? How could the FAA permit a single Max 8 or 9 to takeoff without those best high tech updates?

Meanwhile, that limited FAA advisory had forced Boeing to issue another statement late Monday night that was far different in tone and content than Boeing’s earlier bowl of mush. Boeing said in coming weeks it would be installing software updates in its Max 8s to “make an already safe aircraft even safer.” The changes would involve “flight control law, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.” Boeing reportedly realized after October’s Lion Air crash that there was a problem with having just one sensor in the plane’s nose to assure proper pitch.

There is much we still don’t know: Was Trump conned by Boeing’s CEO on Monday? Or did Trump get the full story – but somehow choose to become part of a con that may have kept potentially perilous planes flying – filled with trusting passengers?

Belatedly but finally, Trump did the right thing. Today, mercifully, American passengers are not being conned into flying on planes that their government protectors cannot say for certain are as safe as they can be.

America was once looked up to as the world’s leader on many things, including aviation safety. As forever-Republican former transportation secretary LaHood said Thursday, America’s FAA “should have been the first out of the gate” in grounding Boeing’s 737 Max 8s.

Shamefully, this week, America’s president, transportation secretary and FAA finished dead last in world safety.

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Martin Schram is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Email at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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