It has been 18 months since Boeing’s 737 MAX was allowed to start flying passengers again, but some of the families that lost loved ones in a pair of fatal crashes of the plane say they are still worried about its safety.
With help from a pair of industry insiders, one who worked at Boeing and another who worked at the Federal Aviation Administration, the families are trying to draw attention to those safety concerns. They say officials failed to thoroughly investigate production at Boeing. And they contend that a system alerting pilots to problems onboard must be overhauled.
They have their work cut out for them. The MAX carries out about 2,400 mostly uneventful flights globally each day. Most government investigations ended and laws and regulations were changed, but the families press on, encouraged by help from the industry experts and driven by a desire to avert further tragedy.
“I have two twin girls, and given how many 737’s are out there, it is inevitable that they’re going to fly in one of them at some point,” said Javier de Luis, whose sister Graziella de Luis y Ponce died in the second MAX crash. “There’s my motivation right there.”
In all, 346 people were killed in the crashes, 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 to MCAS, the flight control system behind the crashes. The company’s CEO stepped down, Boeing agreed to a $2.5 billion settlement with the Justice Department, and Congress passed a law imposing major changes in FAA oversight.
But more should be done, the families say.
Apologies from engineer
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 the crash victims after their daughter, Samya Stumo, died in the second crash. Jacobsen, who was weeks from retiring, said he saw problems with the FAA’s culture, such as managers excluding experienced FAA engineers from meetings about the crashes for expedience.
He also apologized for not doing more to change the agency from within and offered ideas to improve the safety of the MAX, including requiring an update to the onboard alerting system.
“We’ve been overwhelmed with everything since the crashes,” Stumo said recently. “And so it took awhile for us to realize how significant it was that he knows what happens in the FAA and knows everything that he knows. We’re trying to keep up day to day. We never wanted to be aviation engineers.”
The regulations governing pilot-alerting systems were updated a little more than 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 that of the MAX’s predecessors, which as older planes were exempt from the new requirement.
Jacobsen, who now works closely with the families, argues that the MAX should meet those modern standards. On that plane, a pilot might have to look in multiple places in the cockpit to diagnose a problem when it arises, he said. Boeing’s other planes satisfy current regulations with a display known as an engine-indication 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 been proved safe over decades of use in the 737 family. Making such substantial changes to a complex system would also require thorough testing and costly retraining for pilots, many of whom have years of experience on 737 aircraft.
“We believe that the 737 is safe. We believe the crew alerting system is safe,” Mike Fleming, a Boeing senior vice president overseeing the MAX’s return to service, told reporters this month. “We believe that commonality is one of the key safety features of our family of the 737 airplane.”
But the company may be forced to make an upgrade, at least to the largest MAX variant, the 737 MAX 10. Under the aviation safety law passed in 2020, Congress required any plane not certified by this December to be subject to more stringent crew-alerting rules. The two midsize versions of the MAX were approved to start flying passengers in late 2020. The smallest, the MAX 7, appears on track to be certified by the end of this year, but it seems increasingly unlikely that the MAX 10 will meet that deadline. Only Congress can grant an extension.
Jacobsen and Ed Pierson, a former Boeing manager who has worked with the families for years, say they are troubled by pilot reports, filed to databases maintained by the FAA and NASA, that they say underscores their concerns with the production quality and alerting system of the MAX.
“A lot of confusion remains, even in the first year back into service,” Jacobsen said.
“A thorough investigation”
With help from Pierson, a former senior manager at Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton, the families have also pushed for a deeper review of Boeing’s production practices, arguing that its culture may have contributed to mistakes that, if unaddressed, could continue to pose problems.
Pierson has said pressure to meet production goals led to worsening conditions at the factory before his retirement in August 2018. He shared those concerns internally and later before Congress. In early 2020, a congressional investigator introduced him to Stumo, and since then, Pierson has been working with the families to call public attention to those issues.
Most recently, he joined the families in meetings with the National Transportation Safety Board, the respected agency that oversees crash investigations. After some pushing by Pierson and the families, an agency official confirmed in an email to Pierson last month that it had not looked into Boeing’s production practices after the crashes. The NTSB’s work carries weight, Pierson said, so that decision may have influenced subsequent inquiries.
“Everything was hinging on a thorough investigation,” he said.
In a statement, the NTSB said its review of the available evidence had given it no reason to look into Boeing’s production practices.
According to Boeing, customers have ordered more than 1,000 MAX planes since the global ban ended in late 2020, and about 45 airlines have returned the plane to service. The company has also made progress on ramping up production and is close to reaching a goal of making 31 MAX planes per month.
In the meantime, 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 de Luis, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “But with this one, you’re unable to move on, because every week, every month, it was a new revelation.”