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Trump, Boeing, Ralph Nader and the Crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302

ColumnMarch 14, 2019
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By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan

Last Sunday’s crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, just after takeoff, killed all 157 people on board. The tragedy provoked global outrage as news circulated that the newly designed aircraft, the Boeing 737 Max 8, has software flaws that make the plane inherently dangerous. Country after country grounded all Max 8 and Max 9 airplanes, with only Canada and the United States, where Boeing is headquartered, holding out. After Canada grounded the planes, President Donald Trump buckled under growing pressure and ordered them grounded as well. “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly,” Trump tweeted a day before issuing the order. Is it that planes are too complex, or that U.S. regulations are too lax, and that passenger safety is consistently sacrificed to benefit large corporations like Boeing?

Among those killed was 24-year-old Samya Stumo. She had just begun work for ThinkWell, an international development organization committed to expanding health care access. A graduate of UMass Amherst, she had just earned her master’s degree at the University of Copenhagen. Samya hailed from a family of engaged citizens: Her grandmother is Laura Nader, a renowned anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and her great-uncle is Ralph Nader, legendary consumer activist and former presidential candidate.

Grieving over the tragic death of his grandniece Samya, Ralph Nader called Boeing’s headquarters. Failing to get a reply, he penned Boeing an open letter titled, “Put Passengers First, Ground the 737 MAX 8 Now!” Highlighting the prevailing belief that the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, like the similar crash of another Max 8, Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia last October that killed 189 people, was caused by faulty software, Nader wrote, “Your own lawyers should be counselling you that Boeing is on public notice and that, heaven forbid, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 crash in this country, the arrogance of your algorithms overpowering the pilots, can move law enforcement to investigate potential personal criminal negligence. … Clearly, you run a company used to having its way.”

The Associated Press reported on a public government database where pilots voluntarily post reports about problems they encounter while flying, including with the 737 Max airplanes. The Boeing 737 is one of the most popular passenger jets on the planet, but the new Max 8 and Max 9 versions rely heavily on artificial intelligence software that consistently causes the plane to nose-dive. One pilot wrote, “The Captain engaged the autopilot after reaching set speed. Within two to three seconds the aircraft pitched nose down.” Another wrote, “With the concerns with the MAX 8 nose down stuff, we both thought it appropriate to bring it to your attention.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that a critical software update was due to be installed in all Boeing Max aircraft, but, due to the December/January government shutdown, the software fix was delayed five or six weeks. Ralph Nader, speaking on the “Democracy Now!” news hour Wednesday, said: “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 … software upgrades between Boeing and the FAA were put on hold. Donald Trump is directly involved in this.”

William McGee is an aviation adviser for Consumer Reports. Speaking on “Democracy Now!,” he said, “What we have now is effectively an oligopoly, unprecedented in the history of the aviation industry here in the United States.” He also faults weak regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration: “The FAA is known throughout the industry, even among some of its own employees and to airline employees, as the ‘tombstone agency.’ 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.” Trump has failed to nominate a head of the FAA. Last year, he floated his own personal pilot for the position. Now he’s expected to nominate a Delta Air Lines executive.

Donald Trump has publicly praised Boeing hundreds of times in his two years in office, and participated in efforts to sell its planes, including the 737 Max series, to countries and airlines around the world. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg praised Trump’s support at a dinner last August at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, appointed by Trump, spent 31 years as a Boeing executive. And Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, has been nominated to the Boeing board of directors.

Ralph Nader wants Boeing executives and Trump himself to be called to testify before Congress under oath. Nader knows the personal pain of losing a loved one to a needless plane crash. The time is now for robust regulation with a priority on passenger safety, holding accountable those who put corporate profit over human lives.

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