Today, families from many countries will remember the lives of those who died on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed one year ago today. I suspect they will be joined by the survivors of the Lion Air Flight 610 accident, bound forevermore with Ethiopian in the corporate and government scandal of the Boeing 737 Max.
In the two decades I have been writing about air safety and even more so during the years I worked for an aviation law firm, I heard many grieving families vow to make sense of senseless death. Among them Jillian Gustafson (TWA 800) and Gail Dunham (United Airlines 585) who work for safer skies through the National Air Disaster Alliance. The late Beverly Eckert who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks and was an advocate for changes in aviation security, was herself killed in the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, leaving her sisters to carry on her work. Today, Reuters reports on Kenyans Joshua and Emily Babu whose son and daughter-in-law were killed on the Ethiopian flight and who have joined the army of the bereft.
Boeing surely braces for days like this. Anniversary stories are a staple of crash coverage. Today the world’s attention returns to the terrible circumstances that resulted in airplanes going rouge, plunging uncommanded into dives from which the pilots were unable to recover.
What’s different this time is the abundance of information withheld by Boeing during the airplane’s design and certification and even after the first Max crash in October 2018, uncovered by journalists (Dominic Gates, I’m looking at you) investigators and whistleblowers. And it is worth noting that the official ICAO air safety investigations are being conducted by the states of occurrence, Ethiopia and Indonesia, where Boeing has less economic pull than in the US.
Neither country seems to have been influenced by a whisper campaign to convince the world that better pilots could have recovered from the MCAS-initiated upsets. This is a bamboozle tactic tried most recently by those commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation to review the Max certification process.
The general theme of that report is that concerns over the Max are overstated and tweaking is enough to “make a safe system safer”. (If that statement seems familiar, that’s because it is straight from the Boeing playbook.) The report makes the point that while too little regulation could result in safety lapses, too much risks stifling innovation.
The inconsistency is that the report’s writers use air safety statistics in the United States to conclude the FAA’s certification of airplanes is effective. But one fraction of the global market cannot be used to assess the whole. The fastest growth in commercial aviation is not in the US but in the developing world. China is the largest purchaser of the Boeing 737 Max.
This tells the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Indonesians and Ethiopians who endorsed the board’s safety recommendation, that the FAA must better assess its assumptions of airplane designs in real-world operations and with real-world crews, not just Boeing test pilots.
A far different analysis of what has been learned about the Max’s flawed development comes from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Its report paints a disturbing picture of both the FAA and Boeing with sections dedicated to flawed assumptions, conflicts of interest, an unseemly influence over regulatory processes and a culture of concealment.
The planemaker’s misdeeds documented in the latter category, withholding information from pilots, airlines and the FAA was consequential. One example cited by the congressional fact-finders was that Boeing knew but airlines and pilots did not, that in the case of erroneous MCAS activation the crew would face a potential catastrophe and have 10 seconds or less to respond appropriately.
Where the house report fails to be forthcoming is recognizing its own role in granting to Boeing a larger role in the certification process. A startling report in The New York Times tells the story of how Boeing led a massive and ultimately successful push to wrest more control over certification of its products. The legislation, opposed by officials at the FAA was nevertheless approved by Congress and signed into law by the President just weeks before the first Max crashed killing 189.
Supporting the bill was Representative Peter DeFazio, whose committee wrote the current report indicting Boeing and the FAA. DeFazio told the newspaper at the time he thought the changes would maintain safety while helping manufacturers become more competitive. Now, he seems to be rethinking that position.
Families of the 737 Max victims remember their loved ones and vow to make these deaths count. It is up to Boeing, the FAA and the elected officials who empower them to make a similar promise. And today is the perfect day to do so.