Crash Victim's Family Pushes To Keep Boeing 737 Max From Flying Again Too Soon

Oct 21, 2019
Originally published on October 21, 2019 11:05 am

The last time Samya Stumo's family heard from her, she had sent a text letting them know she was about to board an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. She would write again when she got there, she promised.

But the 24-year-old from western Massachusetts was among 157 people who were killed when the flight crashed last March.

For her family, it was the start of a painful, grief-choked odyssey that has turned them and dozens of other families into reluctant activists, taking on federal regulators and Boeing over the crashes of two 737 Max airplanes.

"We're traumatized. We don't want to be doing this," says Michael Stumo, Samya's father. "But we want to avoid a third crash. If someone had been more active after [the first crash] in Indonesia, maybe this crash wouldn't have happened."

The flight Samya Stumo had boarded crashed in a remote part of Ethiopia on March 10, killing all on board. It was the second air disaster involving a Boeing 737 Max in less than five months, coming after the October 2018 crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia.

Both crashed right after takeoff, when the noses of the planes went into steep dives, making it difficult for the pilots to control the aircraft. After the second crash, regulators took the plane out of service to figure out what had happened, and the 737 Max has been grounded ever since.

Investigators have zeroed in on flaws in a software program designed to stabilize the plane, and Boeing says it has redesigned the program to make it easier for pilots to use.

The company has also said it hopes to have the plane back in the air by the end of this year.

But the Stumo family and other victims' relatives say that's too soon, and they've become a driving force in the campaign to keep the plane out of the air. They testified on Capitol Hill in July and met with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in September.

Samya Stumo was killed in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. "If someone had been more active after the first crash in Indonesia, maybe this crash wouldn't have happened," says her father, Michael Stumo.
Stumo Family via Getty Images

The 737 Max is a dramatically redesigned version of a plane that first began flying a half century ago, says Robert Clifford, lead counsel for the families, who have sued Boeing.

"We're talking about Kitty Hawk versus going to the moon, in terms of all the technologies and issues of flight safety," he says. "The 737 of today, it looks nothing like and is nothing like the 737 of old."

The families are seeking damages form the aircraft maker, but they also want regulators to order a complete recertification of the plane, a kind of soup-to-nuts examination of its design.

Such a move would be an enormous financial challenge for Boeing, which stands to lose market share the longer the 737 Max is out of service.

"It is a very expensive decision and it adds hundreds of millions of dollars and years to the process. So it's not a decision that's made lightly," says Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia says it's also not clear that a complete recertification is really needed because investigators already have a pretty good idea what caused the planes to crash.

"The mistakes are pretty clear. ... I don't see how this is at all a dangerous plane once those changes are made," he says.

Boeing says it's working to correct the problems and still hopes to have the plane flying again by year end. In a statement to NPR, the company said:

"We extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all those on board the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air 610. We're continuing to collaborate with regulators on the process they laid out for certifying the 737 Max software and training updates and for safely returning the airline to service."

But the Stumo family and others say they have little confidence in either Boeing or the Federal Aviation Administration, which only grounded the 737 Max after other regulators around the world had done so.

The death of Samya Stumo, who worked for a Washington-based non-governmental organization, has left her family numb with grief. Her parents lost another child to cancer 20 years ago, and they've had to cope with the fact that their family is smaller and thinner than it used to be, Stumo says.

The possibility that the 737 Max could be flying again soon has stirred them into action.

Months after the two tragedies, there hasn't been enough accountability for what happened, Michael Stumo says.

"[The] people that made the decisions that killed my daughter, they should no longer make those decisions," he says. "Both at FAA and Boeing the people that made the decisions that ended up causing these crashes, they're still there."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Boeing says it hopes to have the 737 Max jet back in service by the end of this year. That model was involved in two crashes in the past 12 months, one off the coast of Indonesia, one in Ethiopia. Three hundred and forty-six people died. And regulators grounded the plane for an investigation. Now the families of the plane crash victims are trying to keep it grounded. NPR's Jim Zarroli has the story.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Michael Stumo wears an Orthodox Christian cross made in Ethiopia to remember his daughter Samya.

MICHAEL STUMO: She was light. She was beautiful. She was intellectual. She had great judgment. She was a leader. She was always bringing us together. She was always connecting, reaching out.

ZARROLI: Samya Stumo was 24. And she'd just taken a job at a development organization. She texted her family in Massachusetts to say she'd gotten on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. That night, they learned the plane she was on had crashed.

STUMO: And we knew there was a crash. We didn't know there was no survivors. And so we decided, we have to get there. She might be injured in a field. We got in our car and started driving to JFK to find a plane. And on the way down at some point, we heard there were no survivors.

ZARROLI: The Stumos had lost another child to cancer years before. Samya's death left them numb with grief, Stumo says, struggling to cope with the fact that their family had become smaller. Then in April, they read that the plane could be back in the air by fall. And that stirred them into action.

STUMO: We're traumatized. We don't want to be doing this, but we want to avoid a third crash. If someone had been more active after the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, maybe this crash wouldn't have happened.

ZARROLI: The Stumos have joined dozens of families suing Boeing. These families have become a driving force in the effort to keep the plane from flying too soon. The families say the plane shouldn't fly until questions about its safety are answered. Lead attorney Robert Clifford points out that the 737 Max has been dramatically redesigned since it started flying 50 years ago.

ROBERT CLIFFORD: We're talking about Kitty Hawk versus going to the moon in terms of all the technologies and issues of flight safety. The 737 of today - it looks nothing like and is nothing like the 737 of old.

ZARROLI: The controversy over the plane has intensified lately. Messages released last week indicate that a top pilot at Boeing had warned two years before the crashes that the plane was difficult to control in flight simulation. The families want to complete recertification of the 737 Max. Recertification is a kind of soup-to-nuts examination of the plane's design. Such a move would be a financial disaster for Boeing. The 737 Max is Boeing's best-selling plane. And the longer it's grounded, the more market share Boeing loses. Peter Goelz is a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

PETER GOELZ: It is a very expensive decision. And it adds hundreds of millions of dollars and years to the process. And so it's not a decision that's made lightly.

ZARROLI: For that reason, a complete recertification is considered unlikely. Aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia (ph) says it's also not clear it's necessary. The crashes occurred after a redesign of the plane's autopilot system. These changes could force the plane's nose down in rare situations, confusing the crew.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: The mistakes are pretty clear. In other words, I don't see how this is at all a dangerous plane once those changes are made.

ZARROLI: For its part Boeing said in a statement that it continues to collaborate with regulators on the process they've laid out for certifying the plane's software and safely returning the 737 Max to service. Stumo says there needs to be accountability for what happened.

STUMO: They should have people that made the decisions that killed my daughter - they should no longer make those decisions both at FAA and Boeing. The people that made the decisions that ended up causing these crashes - they're still there.

ZARROLI: The families also want to see a memorial to the victims erected in the remote part of Ethiopia where the plane crashed. But the real memorial, they say, needs to be permanent changes in airline safety to make sure the 737 Max doesn't crash again. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.