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Preliminary report on Ethiopia crash finds pilots followed Boeing’s procedures properly

The international scandal is ongoing.

Employees work on a Boeing 727 Max 9 plane in Renton, Washington, in March 2019.
Employees work on a Boeing 727 Max 9 plane in Renton, Washington, in March 2019.
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The pilots of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 jet that crashed in March were following the procedures Boeing recommended but were still unable to stop the jet from nosediving, Ethiopian investigators say.

On March 10, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Nairobi, Kenya, faltered and crashed soon after taking off, killing all 157 people on board. The incident came just months after a Lion Air flight of the same model took off from Jakarta, Indonesia, and crashed, killing all 189 passengers. The pair of disasters has put scrutiny on the safety of the Boeing 737 Max planes, which were first introduced into service two years ago.

Ethiopian Transport Minister Dagmawit Moges on Thursday presented a preliminary report on the crash and, according to NPR, said, “The crew performed all the procedures repeatedly provided by the manufacturer but was not able to control the aircraft.” The report is based on analysis from the jet’s flight data recorder and cockpit recorder and more than a dozen investigators.

Ethiopian Airlines in a statement thanked investigators and said it will continue to work with the investigation team. It said the preliminary report “clearly showed” the pilots “have followed the Boeing recommended and FAA approved emergency procedures to handle the most difficult emergency situation created on the airplane” and that it was “very unfortunate” that they could not stop the plane from nosediving.

Boeing in a statement said it would “carefully review” the report and “take any and all additional steps necessary to enhance the safety of our aircraft.”

Under scrutiny specifically is the jet’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an anti-stall system in the Boeing 737 Max 8 planes that makes it difficult for pilots to control the plane without being overridden. It’s not known whether the MCAS or pilot error caused the crashes. The preliminary report doesn’t assign blame, but it’s likely to ratchet up the pressure on Boeing and the regulators who green-lit the new model.

Boeing in its statement said the preliminary report contains information “indicating the airplane had an erroneous angle of attack sensor input that activated the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) function during the flight, as it had during the Lion Air 610 flight.” The company is planning to release a software update to the MCAS and pilot training.

During Thursday’s news conference, Moges didn’t mention the MCAS by name, the New York Times notes. But after the conference, she told the Times it had been active during the Ethiopian Airlines flight, though she couldn’t yet say how many times it was turned on and off.

She said the plane had a valid certificate of airworthiness and, per NPR, officials haven’t determined whether there was a structural problem with the aircraft.

Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 jets have been grounded worldwide after the pair of crashes.

On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would “continue to work toward a full understanding of all aspects of this accident” and will “take appropriate action” as necessary.

This is a big scandal

Beyond the obvious tragedies themselves, the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes have ballooned into a huge international scandal.

Vox’s Matt Yglesias laid out what’s going on (you should read his full explainer), and it’s a lot more than this anti-stall system. Boeing, in looking to outdo a competitor, made some less-than-ideal decisions about the plane and basically used software to get around a bunch of other problems with the model. And the FAA put a lot of trust in Boeing that it was doing the right thing. Per Yglesias:

The story begins nine years ago when Boeing was faced with a major threat to its bottom line, spurring the airline to rush a series of kludges through the certification process — with an underresourced Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seemingly all too eager to help an American company threatened by a foreign competitor, rather than to ask tough questions about the project.

The specifics of what happened in the regulatory system are still emerging (and despite executives’ assurances, we don’t even really know what happened on the flights yet). But the big picture is coming into view: A major employer faced a major financial threat, and short-term politics and greed won out over the integrity of the regulatory system. It’s a scandal.

With Thursday’s preliminary report, the scandal continues to unfold, and it’s likely far from over.

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