Boeing 737 Max flies again, but relatives of crash victims say risks remain

It’s been 18 months since Boeing’s 737 Max was allowed to start carrying passengers again, but some of the families who lost loved ones in a pair of fatal plane crashes say they’re still worried about their safety.

With the help of a pair of industry experts, one who worked at Boeing and one who worked at the Federal Aviation Administration, the families are trying to bring attention to those safety concerns. They say officials did not thoroughly investigate production at Boeing. And they maintain that a system that alerts pilots to problems on board should be reviewed.

They have their work cut out for them. The Max makes around 2,400 mostly uneventful flights around the world each day. Most government investigations ended and laws and regulations were changed, but the families pressed on, encouraged by the help of industry experts and driven by a desire to prevent further tragedy.

“I have two twin girls, and given the number of 737 there are, it is inevitable that at some point they are going to fly in one of them,” said Javier de Luis, whose sister Graziella de Luis y Ponce died in Max’s second accident. “That’s my motivation.”

In all, 346 people died in the accidents, first in Indonesia in late 2018 and then months later in Ethiopia. The Max was allowed to fly again in late 2020 after Boeing made changes to the plane, including MCAS, the flight control system behind the crashes. The company’s CEO resigned, Boeing agreed to a $2.5 billion settlement with the Justice Department, and Congress passed a law imposing major changes to FAA oversight.

But more must be done, families say.

Early last year, Joe Jacobsen, an FAA safety engineer in Seattle, sent a letter to Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron, who helped organize the families of crash victims after their daughter, Samya Stumo, died. in the second accident. Jacobsen, who was weeks away from retirement, said he saw problems with the FAA’s culture, such as managers excluding experienced FAA engineers from accident meetings out of convenience.

He also apologized for not doing more to change the agency from within and offered ideas for improving the safety of the Max, including the need to update the onboard warning system.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with everything since the accidents,” Stumo said in a recent interview. “And it took us a while to realize how significant it was that he knows what goes on at the FAA and knows everything that he knows. We are trying to keep up. We never wanted to be aviation engineers.”

The regulations governing pilot warning systems were updated just over a decade ago for the first time since 1977, in part to better organize such warnings. But the FAA granted Boeing an exception for the Max after determining that the system was not substantially different from the Max’s predecessors, which as older planes were exempt from the new requirement.

Mr. Jacobsen, who now works closely with the families, argues that Max should meet those modern standards. On that plane, a pilot might have to look in various places in the cabin to diagnose a problem when it arises, he said. Boeing’s other planes comply with current regulations with a display known as the engine indicating and crew alerting system, or EICAS, which provides a more centralized and descriptive interface.

Boeing and some independent safety experts argue that the existing system has proven safe over decades of use on the 737 family. Making such substantial changes to a complex system would also require extensive testing and costly retraining for pilots, many of whom have years of experience on 737 aircraft.

“We believe the 737 is safe. We believe the crew alert system is safe,” Mike Fleming, Boeing’s senior vice president overseeing the Max’s return to service, told reporters this month. “We believe commonality is one of the key safety features of our 737 family of aircraft.”

But the company may be forced to upgrade, at least to the larger Max variant, the 737 Max 10. Under the aviation safety law passed in 2020, Congress required that any aircraft not certified by December 2022 be subject to stricter crew alerts. rules. The two midsize versions of the Max have been approved to start carrying passengers in late 2020. The smallest, the Max 7, appears to be on track to be certified by the end of this year, but it seems increasingly unlikely that the Max 10 will comply. with that deadline. . Only Congress can grant an extension.

Mr. Jacobsen and the families are not the only ones calling for a review. A Senate Commerce Committee report released in December cited two other experts, a former Boeing engineer and a current FAA engineer, who said a modern warning system would have made the Max a safer plane and possibly even prevented accidents, although other experts disagree. The former Boeing engineer cited in the report presented the committee with a proposal this year to upgrade the Max system, which Mr. Jacobsen endorsed.

Mr. Jacobsen and Ed Pierson, a former Boeing manager who has worked with the families for years, also say they are concerned about pilot reports, filed in databases maintained by the FAA and NASA, which they say underscores your concerns with the production quality and alert system of the Max.

“There’s still a lot of confusion, even in the first year back on duty,” Jacobsen said.

The FAA said it closely followed the reports and acted as necessary, but none related to MCAS, the flight control system at the center of the accidents.

“We made it clear that the aircraft would experience routine in-flight problems, just like any other make and model of aircraft,” the agency said. “It is important to distinguish between these issues and those that led to the suspension of the aircraft.”

With the help of Mr. Pierson, a former senior manager at the Boeing 737 factory in Renton, Washington, the families also pushed for a deeper review of Boeing’s production practices, arguing that its culture may have contributed to errors that , if not addressed, could continue to pose problems.

Mr. Pierson has said that pressure to meet production targets led to worsening conditions at the factory before his retirement in August 2018. He shared those concerns internally and later with Congress. Earlier in 2020, Mr. Stumo was introduced to him by a congressional investigator, and since then, Mr. Pierson has been working with families to bring these issues to public attention.

Most recently, he joined families in meetings with the National Transportation Safety Board, the respected agency that oversees accident investigations. After some pressure from Pierson and the families, an agency official confirmed in an email to Pierson last month that he had failed to investigate Boeing’s production practices after the accidents. The NTSB’s work carries weight, Pierson said, so that decision may have influenced subsequent investigations.

“Everything depended on a thorough investigation,” he said.

In a statement, the NTSB said its review of available evidence had given it no reason to investigate Boeing’s production practices.

“Analysis of flight data and cockpit voice recorder information, maintenance logs, interviews of personnel involved, and review of design certification data resulted in a number of findings,” he said. , “but none of the evidence uncovered during the accident investigation pointed to an aircraft. condition that could be logically or physically traced back to the original manufacture of the aircraft.”

Mr. Pierson and the families disagree. In both accidents, sensors meant to measure the angle of the wings relative to the oncoming wind failed, causing flight control software to push the plane’s nose down, accident investigators found. But Pierson says previous problems on both planes, even with those sensors, could have been caused by production errors and says that possibility should have been further examined.

In a statement, Boeing said the accidents had been the subject of many government investigations around the world and that “none of those reviews found that production conditions at the factory contributed to the accidents.”

Outside security experts also defended the NTSB, saying it did its job and its conclusions are sound.

“I don’t see any credible evidence that should have caused the NTSB to start looking around the factory,” said Jeff Guzzetti, a former FAA and board accident investigator. “They have limited resources and they want to focus on what the probable cause was, and they definitely found the probable cause.”

According to Boeing, customers have ordered more than 1,000 Max planes since the global ban ended in late 2020, and some 45 airlines have returned the plane to service. The company has also made progress in ramping up production and is close to reaching the goal of building 31 Max aircraft per month.

Meanwhile, the families continue to meet with lawmakers and regulators to encourage further scrutiny of the company and the plane.

“When something like this happens, when you have a loss like this, you deal with it, you deal with the logistics, you grieve and then you move on,” said Mr. de Luis, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “But with this one, you can’t move on, because every week, every month, it was a new revelation.”

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