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On the 5th anniversary of a fatal 737 Max crash, victims’ families want more focus on Boeing’s potential safety problems

A mourner lays flowers at the Memorial Arch during a visit to the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 on March 14, 2019 in Ejere, Ethiopia. All 157 passengers and crew perished after the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 Flight came down six minutes after taking off from Bole Airport. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

New York (CNN) — Michael Stumo’s life changed forever on March 10, 2019. His daughter, Samya Rose Stumo, was killed that day when the Boeing 737 Max 8 she was on plunged into the ground just outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, six minutes after the plane took off. She was 24 years old.

“Part of our life is dead. Part of our future is dead,” he told CNN, as the fifth anniversary of the crash approached. “She had it all. She was brilliant. She was the most published student in the Copenhagen School of Public Health. She taught herself to read before she was four. She went to college at 14. She was beautiful, charismatic. Her smile could light up the room. She was very caring. She would have been a star in the world of global health.”

Samya Rose was flying from Ethiopia to Kenya as part of her new job with a health systems development organization. Even though the same jet model had crashed soon after taking off from Indonesia less than six months earlier, aviation authorities around the world had allowed the 737 Max to keep flying with passengers.

Michael Stumo said he never gave the plane or his daughter’s flying plans much thought.

“We didn’t think about air travel. We didn’t pay attention to the airline, the aircraft model,” he said. “We pay hyper attention to planes now. We’d never fly a Max.”

The March 10 anniversary is a difficult one for the families of the 157 people on board the Ethiopian jet, because concerns over Boeing’s safety and quality have been in the news so much in the last two months.

A third incident

This year, on January 5, a part of a 737 Max 9 flown by Alaska Airlines blew out, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the plane. Fortunately, it was able to land minutes later without any fatalities or serious injuries.

A preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the plane had left a Boeing factory and was delivered to Alaska Air less than three months before, all while missing four bolts needed to hold the door plug in place.

Boeing has announced steps to improve safety and quality since the incident, including an all-employees safety meeting the week following the blowout, and shutting production at the Max factory for a day later that month to talk further about how to improve safety. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is not satisfied: The regulator gave Boeing 90 days to come up with a plan to deal with safety gaps.

Some of the families of the Ethiopian crash victims welcomed the intense regulatory scrutiny on Boeing following January’s door plug blowout.

“It’s not that we’re happy that it happened. But it’s a mixed blessing. Something bad was going to happen, but in this case, nobody died,” Stumo said. “With our crash it was focus on the design. It wasn’t on the production chaos. The production problems really came to the fore this time.”

Zipporah Kuria, 28, who lost her 55-year-old father, Joseph, on the same flight, said her entire life was uprooted by the crash.

“I think my initial impression, what an unfortunate accident,” she recalled about the 2019 crash. “Then when I heard later that day this is not the first of these accidents, and that both were relatively new planes, my mind went to ‘something’s not right.’”

Like Stumo, she became involved with trying to hold Boeing accountable for its failures, spending hours every week on the issue, reaching out to aviation regulators, speaking out publicly, and trying to bring more public attention to Boeing’s production and safety problems.

“It’s robbed me of time and opportunity and peace of mind, and most importantly, my dad,” she said this past week. “I haven’t had the capacity to fall in love and build a life with somebody else because this has been the center of my life. When I think ‘I’m going to focus on other parts of my life now,’ a door falls off a plane and we’re back in the Boeing circus.”

But like Stumo, Kruia says she is pleased that the Alaska Air incident has brought attention to the fact that the problems at Boeing were not fixed when the 737 Max planes returned to service after the 20-month grounding. Boeing’s production problems went beyond the design flaw that led to the crashes.

The company, for five years, has faced repeated quality and potential safety issues with its aircraft, leading to the long-term grounding of some jets and the halt in deliveries of others. But the problems, including de-icing equipment that could fail on 737 and 787 Dreamliner planes, engine issues for the 777 and repeated quality control concerns for the 787’s fuselage, failed to capture much attention from the public. The frightening door plug incident, however, shined a spotlight on the years of safety concerns at the company.

“When that happened, and everyone on the plane was fine, there was a relief,” Kuria said. “This is the smoking gun we’ve been waiting for the world to see, to wake up and have Boeing be exposed.”

Pressure for business as usual, and a deferred prosecution

The victims’ families, and the attorney who has represented many of them, are particularly angry that the Max continued to fly after the first accident demonstrated a design flaw, a problem with a single sensor that would push the nose of the jet down if it sensed an imminent stall.

Boeing continued to insist that the plane was safe, not only after the first crash but for days after the second crash. Boeing only later admitted to the design flaw as part of the investigations and lawsuits that disclosed internal discussions about the problems with the design soon after the first crash.

“Within days of the first crash, Boeing knew there was a design defect,” Robert Clifford, one of the plaintiff attorneys in the case, told CNN. “Rather than alert all the operators about this defect, they believed they could get ahead of the curve. That’s not what happened. They gambled with people’s lives and the people lost.”

In 2021 Boeing admitted to liability in the two crashes, agreeing to pay compensatory damages, which allowed the company to avoid the possibility of having to pay far more in punitive damages.

It also agreed to a controversial deferred prosecution agreement with the US Justice Department on charges that it defrauded the FAA when getting the original certification for the Max. Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion as part of the settlement – but most of that money was paid to the airlines as compensation for the 20-month grounding of the jets. Those were payments that Boeing had already agreed to make.

Since the Alaska Air incident the Justice Department has started reviewing whether deficiencies found in the wake of the door plug blowout on a 737 Max flight violate that deferred prosecution agreement, according to a person familiar with the investigation. The results of the probe could subject Boeing to criminal liability, depending on its outcome.

Boeing acknowledged in a January regulatory filing that the Justice Department was looking at whether it had fulfilled the terms of the deferred prosecution agreement, but the company told CNN it had no further comment on the latest Justice Department probe.

But beyond the many probes and audits and investigations of Boeing, many family members are still angry that the jet was allowed to start flying again after the company made changes to that system after a 20-month grounding. They say the Alaska Air incident demonstrates the problems at Boeing go much deeper than the design issue that was fixed. Some say they extend to production issues and to severe problems in the organizational structure at Boeing. The company declined to comment.

Boeing’s CEO Dave Calhoun acknowledged at a companywide safety meeting that the company made a mistake with the door plug blowout and the company has pledged to improve safety. Last month, Boeing removed executive Ed Clark, the head of its 737 Max passenger jet program.

‘A swampy cesspool’

Since the Alaska Air incident, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a report that had been in the works for more than a year, sharply critical of the safety culture at Boeing. Despite statements from Boeing management about a renewed commitment to safety, the FAA found “safety-related messages or behaviors are not being implemented across the entire Boeing population.”

The panel, which conducted more than 250 interviews and reviewed more than 4,000 pages of documents, found that among Boeing employees there was a “hesitation in reporting safety concerns for fear of retaliation” because of management conflicts of interest. The report also said confusion about the safety programs “may discourage employees from submitting safety concerns.”

A separate FAA follow-up report focused on the Alaska Air incident and found multiple problems with Boeing’s production practices. The agency has given Boeing 90 days to produce the plan to fix its quality issues.

Boeing insists it is making a renewed commitment to safety and fixing production problems, and that the company is working to satisfy the concerns expressed by the FAA. Asked for a comment on the fifth anniversary of the Ethiopian crash, the company responded, “We will never forget the lives lost on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610 and their loved ones. Their memory and the hard lessons we learned from these accidents drive us every day to uphold our responsibility to all who depend on the safety and quality of our products.”

But the victims’ families are hardly satisfied with that statement or other apologies issued by Boeing and its executives over the last five years. They say they won’t stop pushing for changes at Boeing until the top management at the company is replaced.

“The blame lies with Boeing management. Until David Calhoun and Chief ‘Safety’ Officer Mike Delaney are gone, it won’t change,” Stumo said. “It’s a swampy cesspool.”

Stumo and some other family members of victims met with previous Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg in 2019 after he testified about the crashes in Washington. Asked if he would like to meet with Calhoun, Stumo paused for a long moment before responding, “I’m not sure.”

But Kuria said she’d like to meet with Calhoun and other Boeing executives.

“Just to find out how these people sleep at night,” she said. “How do you kiss your children and hug your wife knowing there’s a group of families never get to do that because of the decisions made.”