A group of family members representing more than 50 people who died in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 are calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct a full regulatory review of Boeing's 737 Max before it is allowed to fly again.
The Max, which entered service in 2017, is Boeing's most recent update to the 737, which was introduced in the 1960s. Because it was not an entirely new airplane, the FAA reviewed only the parts of the Max that differed significantly from a previous version of the 737.
By certifying the plane with a so-called amended type certificate, the FAA allowed Boeing to get the Max flying years sooner than it would have had the company introduced a brand-new plane that had to be certified for the first time.
But with scrutiny of the FAA mounting after the crash in Ethiopia and an earlier crash in Indonesia, the families of many victims are calling on the FAA to take an entirely new look at the Max. The plane remains grounded while Boeing works on a software update and other changes intended to make the Max safer.
Michael Stumo, whose daughter, Samya, was killed in the Ethiopian crash, is leading the effort by the family members.
"The FAA was lax, compliant and captured at the time of the amended type certification," Stumo said at his home Monday. "There needs to be a full recertification to catch anything and make sure it's safe to fly again."
On Tuesday, the families sent a letter calling for the full recertification of the Max to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the acting FAA administrator, Daniel Elwell, and the incoming administrator, Stephen Dickson.
The letter also asked the FAA to require that pilots be trained on simulators before they could fly the Max. Relatives of people killed in other crashes, including the Max crash in Indonesia, also signed the letter.
In a statement, the FAA expressed condolences to the victims and said it welcomed the feedback from multiple investigations into the crashes.
"The lessons learned from these tragedies will be the springboard to an even greater level of safety," the agency said in a statement. "The FAA is following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline, for returning the Boeing 737 Max to passenger service."
Boeing said it was working with regulators to ensure that the Max was safe.
"We extend our deepest sympathies to the loved ones of all those on board these flights," the company said in a statement. "We will continue to follow the lead of the FAA and global regulatory agencies in certifying the aircraft and ensuring its safe return to service."
Were the FAA to conduct a full recertification, it would throw Boeing and much of the aviation industry into turmoil. The company is reeling from the protracted grounding of the Max. Airlines are counting on Boeing to deliver thousands of Max jets in coming years. And Boeing suppliers, already feeling the effects of a slowdown in production of the Max, would be devastated by a years long delay.
The FAA has never conducted a full recertification of a plane once it entered service. Scott Hamilton, managing director of the Leeham Co., an aviation consultancy, said the odds of a full recertification were slim.
"I don't see it as plausible at all," Hamilton said. "If it were going to happen, it would have happened long ago."
Despite the long odds, the families are calling for it as a way to highlight what they say was flawed design and regulatory approval of the Max.
"I don't think there's been enough scrutiny to determine whether this product is airworthy," said Chris Moore, whose daughter Danielle was killed in the Ethiopian crash. "Essentially, what happened is my daughter and 156 others were on the second phase of a flight test. They were guinea pigs."
The Max featured larger engines than the previous 737, and they had to be mounted farther forward on the wings, changing the aerodynamics of the plane. In response, Boeing added an automated system, known as MCAS. The system malfunctioned in both crashes, sending the planes into unrecoverable nose dives.
While the plane was being developed, Boeing concluded that the system was not particularly dangerous, and key FAA engineers never fully reviewed MCAS as part of the certification.
"At what point does it become a new plane?" Stumo said. "They never took a holistic look at the whole plane."
Stumo and Moore also called for the resignation of the FAA's safety chief, Ali Bahrami.
Bahrami oversaw the creation of the FAA office that certified the Max, and he was criticized by some in the regulator for being too deferential to Boeing. Bahrami then went to work for an aviation industry association that counts Boeing as a member, before returning to the FAA.
Last week, Bahrami defended the FAA's certification of the Max at a congressional hearing. The next day, Stumo's wife, Nadia Milleron, and their son, Tor, met with Bahrami in Washington and were dissatisfied with his response.
"We think Bahrami is more concerned with getting the plane in the air than safety," Stumo said.
The FAA has said it will permit the Max to fly again only once it is convinced the plane is safe. But to the families of some victims, that is not sufficient.
"We do not want any more families to experience the pain, anguish, sadness and loss that we have experienced," the families wrote in the letter. "We therefore respectfully request that you determine that a full recertification and mandatory simulator training is necessary before the Boeing 737 Max 8 is allowed to fly again."
Written by: David Gelles
Photographs by: David Steinberg
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