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Ralph Nader’s Grandniece Died in Ethiopian Plane Crash; Now He Is Urging Boycott of Boeing Jet

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Calls are growing for the United States to ground all Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes in the wake of a devastating plane crash in Ethiopia Sunday that left 157 people dead. It is the aircraft model’s second fatal crash in the past five months. An Indonesian flight of the same plane type crashed last October, killing 189 people. In response, two-thirds of the 737 MAX 8s have been pulled from service. At least 41 countries across the globe, from China to Turkey to India, have grounded their fleets of the aircraft until a thorough safety review is conducted. Despite international outcry, the United States and Canada are continuing business as usual. We speak with Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic and former presidential candidate. His great-niece, Samya Stumo, died on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. Nader wrote an open letter to Boeing titled “Passengers First, Ground the 737 MAX 8 Now!” And we speak with William McGee, aviation journalist for Consumer Reports. He is the author of “Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Calls are growing for the United States to ground all Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes in the wake of a devastating plane crash in Ethiopia Sunday that left 157 people dead. It is the relatively new aircraft model’s second fatal crash in the past five months. An Indonesian flight of the same plane type crashed last October, killing 189 people. In response, two-thirds of the 737 MAX 8s have been pulled from service. At least 41 countries across the globe, from China to Turkey to India, have grounded their fleets of the aircraft until a thorough safety review is conducted. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency has joined the United Kingdom, France and Germany in suspending use of the aircraft model.

Despite international outcry, however, the United States and Canada are continuing business as usual. Three airlines—Southwest, American and Air Canada—have resisted mounting pressure to temporarily halt Boeing 737 flights. Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican who served under President Obama, urged the Trump administration to ground all Boeing 737 MAX planes, in an interview with CNBC Monday, saying the jets needed to be inspected by Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration, or the FAA.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg reportedly spoke to President Trump and assured him the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft was safe. The conversation came shortly after Trump tweeted that planes are, quote, “becoming far too complex to fly,” unquote.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting Boeing began working an extensive change to the plane’s flight control system after the Indonesia crash with the same model of plane in October. But, the Journal reports, the key change was delayed by five weeks due to the government shutdown. U.S. regulators are expected to mandate the change by the end of April.

Well, for more, we’re joined on the phone by Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic, former presidential candidate. His great-niece, Samya Stumo, died on the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. Ralph Nader is the author of many books, including Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety. He just wrote an open letter to Boeing titled “Passengers First, Ground the 737 MAX 8 Now!”

And in New Haven, Connecticut, we’re joined by William McGee, aviation journalist for Consumer Reports, author of Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ralph Nader, let’s begin with you first. Our condolences to you, to your family, to your sister Laura Nader, a beloved professor of anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, whose granddaughter Samya is. We are so sorry to hear about the death of your grandniece. When did you last see her?

RALPH NADER: We had dinner together on Friday. She had leadership, compassion and intellectual rigor written all over her. It’s the kind of leadership we expect from the young generation going into the next decades. Her commitment was to global health and prevention, and not just diagnosis and treatment. And she was very rigorous about what works and what doesn’t in underdeveloped countries regarding infectious diseases and other ailments and environmental safety. So, she really had it all. I think she learned a lot at the University of Copenhagen, where she got her Master’s of Health.

This is a terrible, terrible tragedy, and not just for her, all the people on the plane. There were many aid workers, people working in food, drinking water, environment, helping people in need. And it’s a tragedy for all those people in the future who will not be saved by her good work.

AMY GOODMAN: She went to University of Massachusetts Amherst and was homeschooled before that, now working for an organization, ThinkWell, where she was working on health issues in Africa?

RALPH NADER: That’s right. It was her first trip, under her new job, to Africa. Very enthusiastic. And she got to Addis Ababa and boarded this killer plane, a MAX, 737 MAX 8. That is the harbinger for the future, people. They are going to use more and more artificial intelligence. In this case, this is a plane whose misguided software overpowered its own pilots. And that’s why people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warned a few years ago, in an open letter to the world, that if we don’t control artificial intelligence, it’s going to destroy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ralph, you’ve sent a letter to the folks at Boeing. Could you talk about not only the reaction that you had when you heard what had happened to your great-niece and all the others on the plane, but your sense of what Boeing is doing or not doing right now?

RALPH NADER: Boeing is used to getting its way with the patsy FAA. And this time, however, it’s in really hot water. If it continues to dig its heels in, it’s going to expose itself and its executives to potential criminal prosecution, because they are now on notice, with two crashes—Indonesia and Ethiopia. There’s probably a lot more to come out in terms of the technical dissent, in the, what was called, “heated discussions” about the plane software between the FAA, the pilots’ union, Boeing. And you can’t suppress technical dissent forever. And Senators Markey and Blumenthal are calling for the release of all the relevant information. And while that happens, the planes must be grounded. You see, they’re on notice now. This is the future of passenger business for Boeing. They’ve got orders for over 3,000 planes from all over the world. They’ve produced and delivered about 350. Southwest is the leading owner and operator of these planes. It’s digging its heels in, and so is American Airlines, I believe, and Air Canada. And Boeing is not going to get away with this, because this is not some old DC-9 about to be phased out. This is their future strategic plan. And they better own up. 2013, they grounded the 787 because of battery fires, and they had about 50 or 60 of those planes. So, there’s plenty of precedent.

And the most important thing that people can do is: Do not fly this plane, the 737 MAX 8 and 9. Ask the airline, when you book the flight, whether it’s that plane. The airline should not dare charge you for reservation changes. And I’m calling for a boycott of that plane. If several hundred thousand air passengers boycott that plane and there are more and more empty seats, that will do more to bring Boeing around than the patsy FAA and a rather serene Congress, which, by the way, gets all kinds of freebies from the airlines that ordinary people don’t get. We’ve sent a survey last year, twice, to every member of Congress, asking them to disclose all these freebies. We didn’t get one answer. And that helps account for, over the years, the total reluctance of members of Congress even to do such things as deal with seat size, restroom space and other conveniences, never mind just the safety of the aircraft. So, this is important for consumers. Just don’t fly 737 MAX 8 or 9. Make sure that you’re informed about it. And for up-to-date information, you can go to FlyersRights.org. That’s run by Paul Hudson, who lost his daughter in the Pan Am 103, 30 years ago, and has been a stalwart member of the FAA Advisory Committee. And that’s where you get up-to-date information, FlyersRights.org.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re also joined by William McGee, who’s the aviation adviser for Consumer Reports. Could you give us your perspective on what’s happened here? And also, could you expand on what Ralph Nader was talking about, about the use of artificial intelligence in these new planes?

WILLIAM McGEE: Sure, absolutely, Juan. You know, there are so many unanswered questions here, but many of them are focused on the time period between the first crash in late October with Lion Air and the crash on Sunday with Ethiopian. Again, for perspective here, as Ralph noted, we’re not talking about old aircraft. This is an airplane that’s only been in service since 2017. This is the Boeing 737 MAX 8, a recent derivative of the 737. Now, in that time period, the aircraft that crashed in October was 2 months old; the one that crashed on Sunday was 4 months old. This is really unprecedented in all the years that I’ve been in this industry. We don’t see brand-new airplanes crash on takeoff like this under similar circumstances.

Obviously there are still a lot of questions that have to be answered by investigators, but the impetus is clear that, in the United States, certainly, American and Southwest should be grounding these planes. And if they’re not going to do it voluntarily, then the Federal Aviation Administration needs to step in and do so. It has the authority, and it’s not using it.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Ralph Nader, you spoke yesterday to Raymond LaHood, who is the former transportation secretary under President Obama. He has called for the grounding of these flights. First it would be up to the FAA head, who’s an acting head. President Trump hasn’t managed to actually nominate someone so that they would be approved by the Senate. He wanted to nominate his own pilot, and now wants to—apparently, in the last days, it’s been reported that he was going to nominate a Delta executive to be the head of it, but that hasn’t been done, so it’s an acting head of the FAA. Even if he doesn’t call for the grounding, can’t Elaine Chao, the current transportation secretary—can’t she overrule the FAA? Elaine Chao, of course, not only the transportation secretary, but the wife of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

RALPH NADER: Sure, she could overrule the FAA. She’s in charge of the FAA. But she’s a notorious non-regulator in her government career, both as secretary of transportation and prior offices. So, she’s not going to be looking out for the airline passengers.

Donald Trump is directly involved here. When the government shutdown occurred, I made a comment that this is going to cost lives. They were shutting down lifesaving federal regulatory agencies, health agencies. Trump wanted to cut the FAA budget over a year ago. So he shuts down the government for five weeks, and this relation of software upgrades between Boeing and the FAA was put on hold. Donald Trump is directly involved in this. He should be called to a congressional hearing and required to testify under oath. Morally required—it’s hard to make him go to Capitol Hill. But he’s got to grow up. He’s a person who has no sense of consequence. He’s more than just a bigot and ignorant and narcissistic, but he has no sense of consequence whatsoever. In that sense, he doesn’t have anywhere near the maturity of the post that he was selected for by the Electoral College. So I think we need to go right to the top. The head of Boeing has got to testify.

We’ve had quite enough of this. The airline—the aircraft is safe, but it needs more upgrades. The FAA has had a tombstone mentality: It reacts after crashes; it does not anticipate. And that’s got to stop. But it’s only going to stop when the consumers boycott that plane. And somebody out there listening should set up a network where that boycott can accelerate very, very rapidly. What’s going to turn Boeing around, and the airlines who use it—Southwest and American—what’s going to turn that around are empty seats on the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, William McGee, I wanted to ask you—you’re the author of Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent. Could you talk about some of the broader issues that are affecting the American airline industry right now, that this points up to some of the problems, but give us a broader context?

WILLIAM McGEE: Absolutely. And, you know, this goes back many years. Ralph mentioned that the FAA is known throughout the industry, even among some of its own employees and to airline employees, as the “tombstone agency.” And that phrase comes from the fact that the FAA has shown time and time again that it is reluctant to act unless there’s a tragedy and, unfortunately, unless there are fatalities. Now, we have seen this as recently as last year, when, you may recall, over Philadelphia, a Southwest 737 had a major engine malfunction that punctured a hole in the fuselage and killed a woman who was nearly sucked out of the aircraft. Well, what wasn’t as well reported was that two years prior, that same engine type and that same airline, Southwest, same aircraft type, 737, also had an uncontained engine failure. But in 2016, there were no injuries, and there were no fatalities. Instead of the FAA stepping in and saying, “We need to, you know, have all of these engine blades inspected on this engine type, on all the carriers that are operating it,” the FAA asked the industry, “What would you like to do? How long would you like to take to look at this?” And the industry dragged its heels, not surprisingly, and said, “We need more time.” Two years later, in 2018, there was a fatality. And then, two days after that, last April 2018, two days after that woman was killed, the FAA issued what’s called an AD, an airworthiness directive. That’s what should have been issued in 2016, where that death wouldn’t have happened. So, we have seen this time and again.

And you mentioned Attention All Passengers, my book. Much of the book, about a third of it, is devoted to the issue of the FAA oversight of airline maintenance. We could easily talk about it for two or three more days. But the bottom line is that the entire model of how the airline industry works in the United States has been changed dramatically in the last 15 years or so. All airlines in the United States—without question, all of them—in 2019, outsource some or most or just about all of their maintenance, what they call heavy maintenance. Much of it is done outside of the United States—El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, China, Singapore. Again, we’re talking about U.S. airlines. And although the FAA, on paper, says there is one standard for maintenance of U.S. airlines, the reality is there isn’t. There are waivers given all the time, so that when work is done outside the United States, there are waivers so that there are no security background checks, there are no alcohol and drug screening programs put in place. And, in fact, many—in some cases, most—of the technicians cannot even be called mechanics, because they’re not licensed. They’re not licensed as they’re required to be in the U.S. So, basically, you have two sets of rules. You have one that’s for in-house airline employees and another for the outsourced facilities. And this all leads back to the FAA. I have sat in a room with FAA senior officials and asked them about this, and they say that they don’t think it’s a problem. It is a problem.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what impact—

WILLIAM McGEE: I’ve spoken to—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What impact have the mergers, of the constant mergers of airlines, had, so we basically have a handful of U.S. airlines now, on all of this?

WILLIAM McGEE: Oh, no question. We have an oligopoly now. And, you know, even just going back as far as 2001, you know, there were four or five major carriers that we don’t have anymore: America West, Continental, US Airways, TWA. You know, so what we have now is effectively an oligopoly. And this is unprecedented in the history of the aviation industry here in the United States. And so, you know, even when—Ralph was talking about boycotts, and, you know, it’s an excellent idea. But it’s more challenging now than it would have been a few years ago. You know, there might have been more pressure on Southwest and American 10 or 15 years ago, when consumers had more choices. Now it’s getting harder and harder for consumers to express their displeasure. We saw this after the Dr. Dao incident, where that passenger was dragged off United. In the long term, it didn’t really affect United’s bookings. It would have in another time, but so many people are locked in, particularly outside New York, Washington, Los Angeles. They’re locked in, where they don’t have a lot of choice on carriers.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, I wanted to get your response both to this news that they were working on a fix—they know there’s a software glitch, that somehow, when on automatic pilot, when the plane is taking off, it takes this precipitous dive, and the way to deal with it is to take it off automatic and put it on manual. Now, AP has been doing a deep dive into the database of pilots complaining over and over again about this problem and saying they have to quickly switch to manual to prevent the plane from nosediving into the ground. And this latest news from The Wall Street Journal that while they’re talking about this glitch being fixed in the next five weeks or so, that five weeks were lost in January because of the government shutdown.

RALPH NADER: Well, that’s what Paul Hudson wrote in his press release at Flyers Rights. The focus has got to be on inaccurate or nonexisting information in Boeing’s training manuals and inadequate flight training requirements. They sold this plane on the basis, among other things, of having larger engines. It’s supposed to be 10 percent more fuel-efficient. But they sold it on the grounds that “You don’t have to really train your pilots, airlines. This is really just a small modification of the reliable 737 that’s all over the world.” The question really comes down to cost cutting. They tantalize the airlines by saying, “This isn’t really a new plane. It’s very easy to fly, if you can fly a 737.” And that turned out to be quite false. They had to translate these training manuals into 30 languages—for example, into Amharic in Ethiopia. They had no control over the degree of training for this plane, on the part of the pilots, by the airlines. They took their leisurely time.

Boeing is in deep trouble here. I’m trying to convey to Boeing’s executives that they are going to be exposed to criminal prosecution, if, heaven forbid, there’s a crash in this country. They are totally on public notice. And just from their own commercial advantage, they should ground these planes or tell the airlines to ground these planes in Canada and the U.S. right away.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ralph Nader, we want to thank you for being with us, longtime consumer advocate, former presidential candidate. Again, our condolences on the death of your grandniece. We all send our family of Democracy Now! condolences to your family. And, William McGee, thank you so much for being with us, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports. Your book, Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent.

When we come back, the college testing and entrance scandal. So far, at least 50 people have been indicted. Stay with us.

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