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On anniversary of Boeing Max crash, victim’s family calls for FAA changes in meeting with Buttigieg

Rescuers work at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines crash near Bishoftu, Ethiopia on March 11, 2019.
Rescuers work at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines crash near Bishoftu, Ethiopia on March 11, 2019. (Mulugeta Ayene/AP)

Two years after the death of their daughter in a field outside the Ethiopian capital, Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron stood Wednesday on a broad Washington sidewalk and described how they say senior U.S. officials fell short of transforming the nation’s system meant to keep airplanes safe.

The family of Samya Rose Stumo, who was 24 when a Boeing 737 Max crashed on March 10, 2019, met Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and assailed the senior leadership and pace of change within the Federal Aviation Administration, the biggest component of the new secretary’s department.

“It was a preventable death,” said Milleron, who, along with her husband and son, Tor, wore smiling photographs of Samya on lanyards around their necks.

“She would have been fighting now,” Stumo said, adding that his daughter was on the plane in connection with her work of improving health services for others. As they stood outside the Transportation Department, the family members said they would have preferred to mark the anniversary by mourning in private, but felt compelled to raise safety concerns about the plane and agency to help prevent another tragedy.

In an interview before the meeting with Buttigieg, Stumo urged the Biden administration to replace FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson and Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety.

The family — who were also involved with a small protest outside Boeing’s Arlington office and a vigil in front of FAA headquarters — reiterated that message in their meeting with Buttigieg. Stumo said the secretary was attentive and pledged to seek answers to their questions but, as expected, did not make commitments on personnel.

A statement from the department said Buttigieg expressed sympathy for the loss of a beloved daughter and sister. It went on to say that Buttigieg “believes it is critical for the FAA to effectively implement the bipartisan reforms of the aircraft certification process championed by the Stumo family and enacted in December 2020, and to take all necessary measures to deliver the highest standards of aviation safety.”

FAA still needs to strengthen Boeing oversight after Max crashes, inspector general says

The meeting came after a senior FAA aviation safety engineer wrote the family a detailed and wrenching account last month of what he said were ongoing problems at the agency.

In the letter, Joe Jacobsen, who has worked for 25 years as an FAA aircraft certification engineer, said “one of the problems within the current FAA culture” is that “managers are actively excluding the most senior engineers when they consider them an obstacle to quick resolution of difficult issues.”

Jacobsen said the FAA had not acknowledged the role its management errors played in two Max crashes, first in Indonesia and then in Ethiopia, that killed 346 people, according to a copy of the letter, which was provided by the family and handed to Buttigieg, along with requests to ground the plane again and release safety documents.

“FAA leadership seems to be denying any wrongdoing in the delegation failures,” Jacobsen wrote, a reference to a system that gives Boeing employees broad authority to oversee the safety of its airplanes on the agency’s behalf. “The Department of Transportation may need to replace the highest levels of FAA management to reverse that attitude,” Jacobsen wrote.

The Seattle Times first reported Jacobsen’s concerns on the Max.

An FAA spokesman did not address calls for changes in leadership on Wednesday. The agency said in a statement that it is “committed to continually improving its safety processes,” and that it recognizes the ability of whistleblowers and other “employees to freely report concerns without fear of retaliation is critical to this success.”

In response to employee feedback, it added, the agency is making improvements that include a confidential system “that encourages reporting of aviation safety issues.”

Boeing said last month that employees have “made meaningful improvements across our company, including organizational changes, enhanced compliance policies and training initiatives, and the creation of new mechanisms to further ensure transparent safety and quality reporting.”

Boeing ‘inappropriately coached’ test pilots during review of 737 Max after crashes, Senate investigators say

Buttigieg, who says he once aspired to be an airline pilot, was sworn in Feb. 3 and has pursued a broad agenda, from pandemic-related safety and climate change to crafting a vast infrastructure package. Wednesday’s anniversary was a reminder of the highly complex and deeply fraught realm of aviation oversight.

The FAA’s certification that the Max was safe, despite a flawed automation system that turned deadly, shook confidence in the FAA.

Dickson, a former captain and senior vice president at Delta Air Lines, was named to this role during the second half of the Trump administration and confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term with no Democratic support, an unusual partisan split for the position.

During his own confirmation hearing in January, Buttigieg was pressed by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate committee that oversees transportation, on whether he would prioritize safety changes to address FAA oversight concerns.

Buttigieg said he would, adding that “we’ll be working right away” to implement legislation passed by Congress last year in response to the Max crashes. “We need to make sure that engineers and the FAA are in the driver’s seat when it comes to safety,” he said.

“Are you willing to make changes in personnel if necessary?” she asked.

“Yes,” Buttigieg responded.

A report by the Transportation Department’s internal watchdog found communication and other oversight problems.

The auditors from the Office of Inspector General described a pair of meetings in 2016 involving FAA personnel in which key details of a flawed automation system on the Max were discussed. Crash investigators said faulty information from a single sensor caused the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, to repeatedly force the noses of the planes down, leading to the crashes.

The auditors said FAA flight test personnel were told about “the increased maximum range of MCAS,” a critical issue other investigators said was at the core of the crashes. But FAA engineers working in its separate aircraft certification division “were unaware of the significant changes,” they said. It was that increased power of the automated system that ended up overwhelming pilots in the crashes, investigators said.

Ethiopian investigators blame design flaws for Boeing 737 Max crash a year ago

Communication channels between those FAA divisions “do not ensure all critical knowledge is shared,” the auditors wrote.

An investigation led by Democrats on the House Transportation Committee found that the crashes “were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”

On Wednesday’s anniversary, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), the committee’s chairman, praised families of crash victims “for being incredible advocates for a better, safer aviation system for all.”

Boeing 737 Max prepares return to service after fatal crashes

Families of those killed in March crash of Boeing 737 Max in Ethiopia gather to remember victims