Boeing woes spark painful memories for families of Indonesian crash victims

Near-disaster involving Alaska Airlines aircraft has revived questions about plane manufacturer’s safety record.

Boeing is under scrutiny following the latest safety incident involving its 737 MAX aircraft [File: Lindsey Wasson/Reuters]

Medan, Indonesia – For Neuis Marfuah, the recent near-catastrophe involving a 737 Max plane flown by Alaska Airlines brought back painful memories and anger.

Her daughter, 23-year-old Vivian Hasna Afifa, was killed when Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea in Indonesia on October 29, 2018, killing all 189 people on board.

“How could this have happened? I can’t stop thinking about it,” Marfuah told Al Jazeera.

On Thursday, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that it had approved the Boeing 737 Max 9 to return to service after more than 170 of the aircraft were grounded on January 6, the day after a panel on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 blew out at 14,000 feet with 177 people on board.

The FAA’s “exhaustive” review gave the watchdog the confidence to “proceed to the inspection and maintenance phase”, FAA administrator Mike Whitaker said in a statement that outlined “unacceptable” quality assurance issues.

No one was killed or injured in the incident, but for Marfuah, the news of the near-disaster was hard to bear.

“It should have been enough after the events in Indonesia and Ethiopia to decide to stop operating the Max 737 aircraft once and for all,” Marfuah said.

Less than five months after the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa Airport en route to Kenya, killing all 157 people on board.

Following the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes, a US congressional report found that Boeing operated a “culture of concealment” and that the 737 Max planes were “marred by technical design failures”, including issues with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

MCAS is a flight-stabilisation programme on newer 737 Max models that is designed to automatically stop a plane from going into a stall, although this was not clearly communicated to pilots flying the planes.

On Lion Air Flight 610, a sensor on the outside of the plane malfunctioned and indicated that the nose of the plane was too high and that the aircraft was at risk of stalling, causing the MCAS to automatically force the plane down to avoid a potential stall and crash into the sea.

MCAS also malfunctioned on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, prompting Boeing to make changes so that it now “operates in unusual flight conditions only and now relies on two sensors, activates only once and never overrides pilots’ ability to control the airplane”.

lion air
189 people died on Lion Air Flight 610 [File: Willy Kurniawan?Reuters]

After an investigation into the near-miss involving Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, the airline found that the panel that blew off had been removed, repaired and reattached by Boeing mechanics.

Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said in an interview aired by NBC News on Wednesday that an in-house inspection found that “many” of the 737 Max 9 aircraft had loose bolts.

“Really, an airplane exploded in mid-air in one section,” Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association union and a 737 Max 8 pilot with more than three decades of experience, told Al Jazeera.

“It was an explosive depressurisation of the plane, which is all-encompassing and terrifying. This has taken trust in Boeing and absolutely crushed it again.”

In the three weeks since the Alaska Airlines incident, Boeing has lost nearly one-fifth of its market capitalisation.

After a meeting with US senators on Wednesday, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told reporters that the company does not “put airplanes in the air that we don’t have 100 percent confidence in”.

Anton Sahadi, whose wife lost her two 24-year-old cousins, Riyan Aryandi and Ravi Andrian, on Lion Air Flight 610, described the latest incident involving the Boeing 737 Max incident as “saddening”.

“As a family member of and spokesperson for the victims of the Lion Air plane crash, I was very concerned to hear the Alaska Airlines news, remembering that 189 people were victims of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia,” Sahadi told Al Jazeera.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 was involved in fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

Like Tajer, Sahadi said the latest incident had shaken his trust in Boeing’s planes.

“I am increasingly doubtful about the 737 Max planes and I think there must be serious action taken by the aircraft certifier before they are ready to be sold and used commercially,” he said.

“It is playing with people’s lives and safety. It should be a serious concern for operators and Boeing passengers.”

In a statement provided to Al Jazeera on Tuesday, Stan Deal, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said: “We have let down our airline customers and are deeply sorry for the significant disruption to them, their employees and their passengers.”

On Wednesday, Boeing released another statement in which it said it would “continue to cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA and follow their direction as we take action to strengthen safety and quality at Boeing”.

But Tajer, the Allied Pilots Association spokesperson, said that “trust in Boeing continues to erode” despite the planes being cleared to fly.

“This is not just a case of everyone waking up, people have been watching Boeing closely for some time and they built an airplane based on executive excuses and exemptions,” he said.

It is not just the 737 Max that has been in the spotlight following the Alaska Airlines incident.

On January 18, a Boeing cargo plane made an emergency landing in Florida after the engine caught fire and, on January 20, a nose wheel fell off a Delta Air Lines Boeing 757 flight that was about to take off from Atlanta’s international airport.

“If I had made as many mistakes as Boeing, I would not have a pilot’s licence,” Tajer said.

“We are watching closely and we are not happy. We are going to get through this and we will keep people safe, but we are being asked to cover for Boeing’s failures. Enough is enough. Engineer your planes like lives depend on it, because they do.”

Source: Al Jazeera