Boeing plane in Ethiopian Airlines crash “not safe” – US investigation

Investigators say aircraft's faulty safety system was approved due to an overly close relationship between Boeing and aviation regulators.


A report released by US investigators on Wednesday into two deadly Boeing 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019, including the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, said that Boeing and the US aviation regulator were responsible for developing and certifying an aircraft that was not safe to fly.    

Following the Ethiopian Airlines accident on March 10 2019 that killed 157 people, and the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia five months earlier, both Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) blamed “foreign-trained pilots” for  “not following procedures” and discounted technical design flaws in the 737 Max.

But the report from the US Congress’ House Committee on Transport and Infrastructure said that the 737 Max aircraft used in both accidents was unsafe for pilots regardless of their level of training. 

“While both Boeing and the FAA have pointed to pilot performance as a factor in the MAX crashes and while pilot performance is often a contributing factor in any aircraft accident, neither Boeing nor the FAA can shirk their responsibility for developing and certifying an aircraft that was not safe to fly for all pilots,” congressional Democrats Peter DeFazio and Rick Larson said in the report.

The 18-month investigation found the 737 MAX was unsafe because the FAA had approved a faulty safety system called MCAS due to what investigators said was an overly close relationship between Boeing and the regulator. MCAS, which is designed to automatically counter a tendency in the 737 Max to turn upwards, was not mentioned in crew manuals. Boeing also sought to convince regulators not to mandate simulator training as a requirement for Max pilots, as it would incur extra costs.

The 29-year-old Ethiopian captain of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, Yared Getachew, had 8,000 hours of flying experience, including on the 737, and had taken a refresher course on a different simulator in late September and early October, a New York Times report published in March said. He was scheduled for more simulator training after the March 10 crash. This level of training complied with recommendations from Boeing and the FAA, who both agreed that pilots who had flown earlier models of 737 did not need additional simulator training, the NYT report said.

The report issued by the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure also found that Boeing had withheld testing data from the FAA from its 737 MAX aircraft simulator that test pilots had described as ‘catastrophically’ faulty.

“What makes Boeing’s decision to stick to its goal of no simulator training most troubling is the fact that Boeing had information from its own test data suggesting that some pilots, even US-trained Boeing test pilots, would need more training on the MAX, particularly to respond to an erroneous activation of [anti-software system] MCAS effectively. However, Boeing appears to have discounted this test data and ignored this evidence, assuming that all pilots would respond quickly and effectively to uncommanded MCAS activation. Those assumptions were drastically wrong.”

The report noted that allegations made by an Ethiopian Airlines’ former chief engineer that airline staff covered up the plane’s maintenance records the day after the accident could not be proven.  

“A whistleblower with knowledge of Ethiopian Airlines’ actions in the aftermath of the March 2019 crash alleged that staff of the carrier accessed the airplane’s maintenance records the day after the accident. Such action is contrary to protocols that call for records to be immediately sealed following a crash. However, while it is not known how, if at all, the records were altered, the whistleblower contends that this action was part of a pattern of faulty repairs and erroneous records that call into question the reliability of Ethiopian Airlines’ maintenance practices,” the investigators said. 

Ethiopian Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.

The report’s criticism of Boeing and the FAA highlights their role as the “two main contributors in the accident”, aviation analyst Alex Macheras says.

“In the context of the 238-page report there is very little blame on the airlines Ethiopian and Lion Air. This was never going to clear Ethiopian from any kind of involvement or responsibility in the accident, but the Congress was very critical of two main contributors in the accident and that’s Boeing and the FAA.”

Decision makers at both Boeing and FAA could face court proceedings for their roles in the deaths of 346 people, he added.

“This is not going to go away any time soon. There are a whole variety of different court cases and legislative actions against Boeing, against the FAA and the main stakeholders, and they are coming not just from the airlines and the leaseholders, and not just from suppliers, but from family members of the deceased, and from the people affected by the loss of 346 lives. This is going to be incredibly costly for Boeing, not just financially, but in terms of its reputation.”

Ethiopia’s Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) will soon release its Final Aircraft Accident Report on Flight 302, someone with knowledge of the status of the report told African Business Magazine. A spokesperson for the ECAA said they were unable to comment as the investigation, which they are involved in, is ongoing.

Following the release of the final accident report, criminal charges could be brought in Ethiopia against those responsible, said South Africa-based aviation consultant Linden Birns.

“In most countries the purpose of an aircraft accident investigation is to determine the cause, and to make recommendations to put in place remedial steps to prevent a recurrence. In this particular instance, what often happens in most jurisdictions is after the accident investigation report has been finalised, there could then be a case to initiate criminal prosecutions or civil litigation for damages,” Birns said.

The repercussions will be far-reaching and “unprecedented, not just for Boeing, but for the American economy and the credibility of organisations like the Federal Aviation Administration,” Birns said.

Boeing responded to the House Committee report on Wednesday. The firm said it had improved its safety culture and incorporated many of the report’s recommendations, as well as the results of its own internal reviews, into its design process following the two fatal crashes.

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