MILWAUKEE -- As country after country grounded Boeing's 737 Max jets after a deadly crash Sunday in Ethiopia, U.S. air safety regulators remained resolute in their refusal to do so — until Wednesday, March 13. That's when the Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order keeping the planes on the tarmac.
The agency said what made the difference was new, enhanced satellite tracking data and physical evidence on the ground that linked the Ethiopian jet's movements to those of an Indonesian Lion Air flight that plunged into the Java Sea in October and killed 189 people.
The FAA was under intense pressure to ground the planes and resisted even after Canada on Wednesday joined more than 40 countries, including the European Union and China, in barring the Max from the air, leaving the U.S. almost alone.
FOX6 News at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport Wednesday found a lot of travelers feeling a sense of relief, even though some flights had to be delayed or canceled.
"I'm glad that they're grounding them until they can figure out what's going on," said Joan Logan.
The FAA, which prides itself on making data-driven decisions, had maintained there was nothing to show the Boeing jets were unsafe, and flights continued, but President Donald Trump, who announced the grounding, was briefed Wednesday on new developments by Daniel Elwell, acting FAA administrator and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and they determined the planes should be grounded, the White House said. President Trump spoke afterward with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg and Boeing signed on.
While early satellite tracking data showed similarities between the Ethiopian jet's flight path and Lion Air, Elwell said the FAA was skeptical of the low-resolution images. The data showed movements that weren't consistent with how airplanes fly, Elwell said.
On Wednesday, global air traffic surveillance company Aireon, Boeing and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board were able to enhance the initial data and make it more precise "to create a description of the flight that made it similar enough to Lion Air," Elwell said.
He wouldn't detail the evidence found on the ground, saying the FAA is a party to the ongoing investigation.
The U.S. also grounded a larger version of the plane, the Max 9.
"It's not going to stress me out too much, but I do feel bad for those who are trying to get to their next connecting flight or business or family," said Erik Kennedy, whose Southwest Airlines flight was delayed.
The last known Southwest Airlines Max 8 flight left Milwaukee for Phoenix at 1 p.m. Wednesday, shortly before President Trump's emergency order.
"I think it's just smart to make sure that we know what's going on before we put more people in danger," said Laurel Thomas.
Southwest officials said one flight headed for Milwaukee was canceled Wednesday, with a few other cancellations and delays into the night.
"It's just part of the daily traveling routine, is, there's gonna be some bumps and hiccups. You just have to roll with it," said Kennedy.
Overall, the grounding had little impact on flight scheduling.
"I think it's something they need to investigate," said Thomas.
Most passengers FOX6 News spoke with didn't seem to mind the extra wait.
"If we need to slow down, have the quality control there and not move too fast, I think people overall will feel safe," said Brian Bechtel.
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