‘I miss them,’ father who lost five family members in Boeing 737 MAX crash tells lawmakers

A Canadian man whose wife, three children and mother-in-law were killed in the crash in Ethiopia of a Boeing 737 MAX jet in March told a U.S. House committee Wednesday that Boeing sacrificed safety for profits while avoiding the eye of federal regulators.

“Boeing has an oversight of itself,” said Paul Njoroge, a Toronto investment adviser who described the loss of his vacationing  family during sometimes searing testimony before the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee in Washington, D.C.

Njoroge said his wife and mother-in-law must have known they were going to die and comforted the children, 6, 4, and 9 months old, as the Ethiopian Airlines plunged into the ground shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport on March 10.

“My family’s flesh is there in Ethiopia mixed with the soil … and pieces of the aircraft,” Njoroge said, adding, “I miss them, every minute of every day.”

[Related: Boeing faces largest loss in its history after a $4.9 billion financial hit due to 737 MAX grounding]

He accused Boeing of seeking to shift blame for the crash, as well as the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX off Indonesia, from design flaws to foreign pilots.

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On Wednesday, a congressional panel examining aviation safety after two deadly accidents involving Boeing’s 737 MAX will hear testimony from families and others.

Boeing used the “fallacy of foreign pilot error” to avoid the grounding of the plane after the first crash, Njoroge told the committee.

“That position killed my family and 152 others” on the Ethiopian flight, he said.

Altogether, 346 people died in the two disasters, which led to the worldwide grounding of the MAX shortly after the second crash. There were no survivors.

Njoroge, joined by Michael Stumo, whose daughter, Samya, 24, was killed in the Ethiopian crash, asserted that the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) lack of oversight allowed Boeing to police itself during the design and certification process for the plane. The FAA’s top official has stood behind his agency’s work.

“Boeing should not be allowed to act like a mere investment company, extracting wealth” for its shareholders, Njoroge said.

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Njoroge and Stumo were the first relatives of the victims to testify before congressional committees looking into the  crashes. Regulatory officials, union representatives and various experts have previously appeared before the House and Senate committees; Boeing officials have yet to testify.

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In demanding a legislative fix for the aviation safety system, Njoroge, who is suing Boeing, said before the MAX is allowed to fly again, pilots should be trained on simulators, not on iPad software — the company has said that will be enough to familiarize pilots with how its fix for a suspect flight-control system works.

Njoroge went further in an interview earlier this week with The Associated Press, insisting Boeing should scrap the plane and company executives should resign and face criminal charges. But he did not include those comments in his condensed committee testimony.

Boeing didn’t inform pilots about the flight-control system on the MAX, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), until after the first crash.

In a telephone interview after the hearing, Njoroge said Boeing’s concealment of the information from pilots and airlines justified an ongoing Department of Justice (DOJ) criminal investigation into the plane’s development.

“That is criminal,” said Njoroge, who only learned of the DOJ’s grand-jury probe on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Boeing announced a $100 million fund as an “initial outreach” to the families of the victims, a step that lawyers for the families called “unprecedented ” yet dismissed as little more than a publicity ploy.

On Wednesday, Boeing said $50 million of the $100 million will go directly to the families and that attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw the distribution of funds to victims after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, will be in charge of the fund.

Njoroge’s attorney, Robert Clifford, who is also representing families from 18 countries, called the selection of Feinberg “the first smart thing Boeing has done” in connection with crashes.

But allocating half the fund has only added “a new layer of confusion to expedient and efficient relief to these families,” he said in a statement.

“If Boeing wanted to give real relief to the families, they should work with the insurance partners of Ethiopian Airlines to expedite payments to the families,” he said. “Instead, they are now making it harder. They are not being fast. Instead, there will be a new, double claiming process.”

Boeing should be encouraging Ethiopian Airlines to make speedier payments,  Clifford said.

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“I intend to bring all these matters to Ken Feinberg’s attention,” he added. “He’s a terrific mediator and human being. He understands what families go through during a recovery process, given his massive work with the 9/11 families.”

Stumo told lawmakers they should end the FAA’s policy of designating certain employees of aircraft manufacturers to do safety inspections. He said the FAA should return to a system in which the inspectors were paid by the FAA but reported to both the agency and the company.

With that structure, Stumo said, “the safety culture could put a stop to things if something looked wrong.”

Mike Perrone, president of the union that represents about 11,000 FAA workers including its own safety inspectors, also addressed the subcommittee, saying company employees now do more than 90% of the FAA’s aircraft-certification work. He called for a halt in expanding the use of company employees who are deputized by the FAA until the MAX review is done.

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., the highest-ranking Republican on the subcommittee, assured the passengers’ relatives that the process to “unground” the MAX will not resemble the process under which the plane was originally approved.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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