Pushing It to the Max Boeing's Crashes Expose Systemic Failings

The crash of two Boeing 737 Max jets in the course of just months has created an existential crisis for the company. Were the 346 who died in Indonesia and Ethiopia the victims of shortcuts and cutthroat competition in the aviation industry? By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Grounded 737 Max jets at Boeing Field in Seattle
Lindsey Wasson/ REUTERS

Grounded 737 Max jets at Boeing Field in Seattle


It took Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 about six minutes to travel from Addis Ababa to Ejere, a sprawling cluster of small farms on the edge of the Abyssinian highlands. By car, the journey takes around three hours and winds past unfinished buildings in the Ethiopian capital's southeastern suburbs before continuing down the immaculate, six-lane Addis Adama Expressway, which was built by the Chinese and opened in 2014. After the exit, there's a narrow, bumpy gravel road that's barely wide enough for a single car or carriage. It is out here that the scene of the accident can be found -- or the scene of the crime, depending on what investigators find.

In this undulating terrain 2,000 meters (6562 feet) above sea level, the earth seems scorched. The only green comes from eucalyptus trees, which dot the landscape and provide precious shade for goatherds and their animals. Along the paths are head-high stalls that transform into storefronts come market day, when farmers sell their homemade schnapps. It's a barren region.

The crater the airplane made when it slammed into the ground at 8:44 a.m. on March 10 is around 10 meters deep. Its diameter is difficult to determine now that the excavators are done salvaging what they could find, but people standing on the edge of the pit look tiny by comparison. The plane smashed into the ground at a speed of 926 kilometers per hour (575.4 mph) -- and physics did the rest. The aircraft drilled deep into the ground, dislodging earth and stones, hurling them 50 meters into the air, along with parts of what only seconds ago had been an airplane.

The fuselage, landing gear, wings, engines, doors, windows, seats, luggage -- and people -- were brutally crushed, torn into pieces and strewn around. The grotesque contortions displayed by some pieces of metal come in part because in a last ditch, and ultimately futile effort at survival, the plane entered into a steep curve. The kerosene in the tanks didn't explode and nothing burned. The fuel evaporated instantaneously due to the extremely high speed at impact.

Difficult questions began arising almost immediately after the crash. The most difficult of all is whether this misfortune was, in fact, avoidable. Indeed, whether it should have been prevented. It is unbearable to think the 157 victims from Ejere might have died because of an industrial scandal. And if they were, then the crater is indeed a crime scene -- and it's where the search for clues begins.

Immediate Grounding

From here, there's a direct connection to Indonesia, where only five months earlier, on Oct. 29, Lion Air Flight 610 likewise entered a steep dive, slamming into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff. Together, these two crashes plunged the aviation world into turmoil. And all eyes were suddenly trained on an airplane that had only just gone on the market: the Boeing 737 Max.

Within hours of the second crash, China ordered all planes of that model to be grounded. The United States needed three days to follow suit. Since then, 550 of the new planes around the world, with a sticker price of around $135 million, have been paralyzed. If it were up to Boeing, the aircraft would have been back in service long ago, patched up with a software update. But following the failure of the update in question in tests conducted in late June, the crisis has been ongoing. The 737 Max remains grounded and all eyes are still fixed on Boeing.

In recent weeks, DER SPIEGEL dispatched a reporting team to Seattle, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Addis Ababa, Jakarta and Paris to shed light on the events leading up to and including the crashes. They conducted interviews with Boeing executives and airline managers, visited Boeing factories and spoke to experts who explained the technical side of what went wrong. They even stepped into a flight simulator to get a better understanding. In Ethiopia and Indonesia, they tracked down eyewitnesses of the crashes and spoke to the victims' surviving family members around the world along with lawyers and experts.

DER SPIEGEL learned a great deal about the bizarre process of regulatory approval in the U.S. We also learned of a complaint by a whistleblower at Boeing, who approached the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in June with serious accusations against the airplane manufacturer.

A best-case scenario is hard to imagine given the dire straits in which Boeing currently finds itself. The only way our standard approach to the risks of flying can possibly remain unchanged is if, at the end of the investigations in Ethiopia and Indonesia, it is determined that both were truly accidents in the conventional sense and their similarities.

But if it is revealed that 346 people died because both a corporation and the regulators tasked with overseeing it were grossly negligent, or even deliberately lax, then it would have far-reaching consequences for the aviation industry, the credibility of supervisory bodies and for normal people's everyday lives.

A Feared Lawyer

It was nighttime in New York when the Boeing 737 fell out of the sky in Ethiopia. Marc Moller heard about it on Sunday morning right after he woke up. An Ethiopian Airlines plane, he learned, had crashed on the way to Nairobi with 157 people on board. His first thought was: Lion Air.

Soon, the first TV stations began calling him. CNN and NBC always need experts when the words "Breaking News" scroll across the screen. Producers at the news channels have Moller's number saved for whenever a plane goes down and the 80-year-old lawyer is a legend among his colleagues. When it comes to representing the bereaved, no one can fool him. Airlines, airplane manufacturers, even car rental companies have come to fear him. Should the situation call for it, Moller has no problem disparaging the other side as "mass murderers." When he represented relatives of the victims of the Germanwings crash in 2015, he accused the instructors of the co-pilot, who ultimately killed himself and 149 others in a brutal murder-suicide, of not having noticed how volatile the pilot was.

Lawyer Marc Moller: "There was something seriously flawed and wrong with the 737 Max."
C2 Photography/ DER SPIEGEL

Lawyer Marc Moller: "There was something seriously flawed and wrong with the 737 Max."

A day after the crash in Ethiopia, Moller met with a senior partner from the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler on Third Avenue in Manhattan. The man's name is Justin Green, who had flown fighter jets for the Marines before becoming an attorney. By the time Moller showed up, Green had already begun analyzing the radar data from Flight 302. Now they compared it with the data from Lion Air 610. "Even before the Lion Air and ET 302 flight data recorder information was available, it was clear to us that the two events shared remarkable similarity," Moller recalls. The two lawyers had no doubt: "There was something seriously flawed and wrong with the 737 Max."

The flight paths of both planes were inexplicably wild, characterized by sharp and sudden gains and losses of altitude, as if the pilots were struggling to maintain control of their aircraft. By the end, the planes had gained so much speed and were descending so steeply that the pilots would have had to possess superhuman strength to counter the pressure on the horizontal stabilizer trim. Moller and Green from the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler, specialists in catastrophes, had a case. And what a case it was.

The two of them related the story of their case during a visit to their office in New York, from which they have a view of the East River. There are pictures on the walls that make it look almost like a museum -- sketches of court proceedings with Moller himself always front and center.

"Here," he says. "That's me during the American Airlines case." That was in 1995, when a Boeing 757 struck a mountainside in Colombia. Another drawing shows Moller before a judge to whom they had just shown a visualization of the crash of an Avianca plane in New York. The judge is looking over Moller's shoulder and into the eyes of the opposing counsel. "When the judge asked the defense counsel whether the video reconstruction was accurate, I knew we had won the case."

Justified in Their Demands

Moller has been doing his job since 1964, his career beginning with one of the worst accidents in the history of civilian aviation: Turkish Airlines Flight 981. Due to a faulty cargo bay hatch, the plane exploded in mid-air, killing 346 people onboard the DC-10 over Paris. And Moller had found his calling, that of representing the families of the victims. And that's what he is still doing today: Helping the families of victims secure significant compensation and using all of the legal resources at his disposal to do so. While the bereaved process their grief, Moller says, they are completely justified in their demands for accountability and financial compensation. "The sad truth," he says, "is that ultimately, the currency of compensation is money."

Unlike Green, Moller's young, athletic partner, the older lawyer is "not the pilot type." Moller is a desk jockey with remarkably large hands that always protrude from the sleeves of a suit. The secret of his success, he says, lies in the fact that he's only as smart as the people on the jury; he's not an expert in aerodynamics or flight control or anything else technical. What's more, over the course of his 55 years in the profession, he's learned that every plane crash can be traced back to a single, simple cause. "With the exercise of common sense, the judge and jury will reach the right result," Moller says.

They've been working on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 case since March. It's the firm's most important case in decades. Eight Americans were onboard the plane, 22 United Nations employees, development workers, scientists, men and women from 35 countries. Many of the victims' relatives feel a responsibility to ensure that such an accident never happens again -- that much they owe to their lost loved ones. It's the lawyers' job to make those affected by the tragedy visible, to put a face to the numbers. Indeed, it's easy to say that 157 people died in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. But the scope of the accident only becomes tangible when the people whose lives have been torn apart are placed in the foreground.

Just As He Remembers Her

Sara Gebremichael is dead. She was a stewardess onboard the plane. On the day she died, she left her apartment at around 6 a.m. and was picked up by the airline's chauffeur service. Gebremichael was on the move a lot in the days leading up to her death -- in Brazil, then India, and now Nairobi, Kenya. The upcoming flight was a short one by comparison. Her husband says he had to move after his wife's death. He couldn't handle living as a widower in the apartment they once shared. He erected a small altar near a window in his new apartment with photos of his wife laughing, looking, being -- just as he remembers her.

Getnet Alemayehu is dead. He was the chief logistics officer for aid supplies at Christian Relief Services (CRS), a Catholic relief organization based in the U.S. He had been married for 17 years to his wife, Rahel, a programmer. She had just come back from a business trip to London before the accident. Their daughter, Naomi, is 16 and she spent a lot of time with her father in the week before his death. The day before the accident, the family had gone to a cafe where, instead of cake -- since it was still Lent -- they drank black coffee with lots of sugar. His wife heard about the crash on CNN but was in no shape to share the news with her daughter until the next day. The widow didn't sue Boeing. Her only hope, she says, is that she'll be able to get back a piece of her husband. A finger, a toe -- anything she can bury.

Mourners at the mass funeral in Addis Ababa for the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash: The coffins buried contained only soil, and it will be months before the identities of the remains have been determined.
Samuel Habtab/ AFP

Mourners at the mass funeral in Addis Ababa for the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash: The coffins buried contained only soil, and it will be months before the identities of the remains have been determined.

Yared Getachev is dead. He was the captain of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. Roughly four hours before he lost control of his plane, he made his way to the airport. His neighbor, Fasika, who had just gotten home from early mass, saw him before he left. He was wearing his pilot's uniform with four golden stripes, was traveling lightly and was planning on being back home in Addis that evening. Fasika had known the pilot for eight years. That's how long they'd lived alongside one another in a block of apartments in the northeast of the city.

The apartments here are small, their hallways narrow. One enters the apartments via exterior staircases, like at a cheap American motel. Fasika says that she and Getachev were friends. "He missed his family, who lived in Kenya," she says. "And I miss my son, who's studying in the U.S." They were there for each other when they felt lonely. Yared Getachev left his family at the age of 19 to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot in Addis Ababa.

He was an ambitious young man, slender, almost gaunt, and an extremely sociable person. He was the youngest graduate of the Ethiopian Airlines flight school, a pilot who had spent more than 8,000 hours in the cockpit despite being just 29 years of age. He was a model student. Boeing's lobbyists will likely attempt to make the pilots of the crashed planes, including Getachev, seem incompetent and will try to pin the blame on them. But that is very clearly not true in this case. Patrick Smith, a pilot and well-known author in the U.S., quotes an American flight instructor who trained Getachev. The instructor spoke highly of the young aviator, describing him as an "excellent pilot" who always went to work "well prepared."

Jackson Musoni is dead. The Rwandan worked for the UN Refugee Agency in Sudan, in eastern Darfur. He left behind a wife and three small children.

Jonathan Dubois-Seex is dead. Born in Kenya, he grew up in Sweden, married a French woman, had three children and was on a business trip for the Tamarind Group, which owns and operates restaurants in Africa.

Sebastiano Tusa is dead. He was a marine archaeologist from Italy on his way to a UNESCO conference.

Stephanie Lacroix from Canada is dead. She was accompanying a group of young Canadians to an environmental protection conference.

The site of the crash in Ejere, Ethiopia: The Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max impacted at a speed of 926 kilomters per hour.
Eduardo Soteras Jalil/ DER SPIEGEL

The site of the crash in Ejere, Ethiopia: The Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max impacted at a speed of 926 kilomters per hour.

In all, 157 people are dead. Initially, their remains were stored in an outbuilding at the Addis Ababa airport, in refrigerated containers that usually hold roses before they are exported. Later, the body parts were taken to St. Paul's Hospital. It will likely take months for them all to be identified. Inside the coffins that were laid out during the funeral ceremony at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Addis, there was only soil from the scene of the accident.

Colorful, Jagged Lines

Half a world away, New York attorneys Moller and Green spread out documents showing the plane's flight path, angle of attack and speed at various points in time. The data has been entered into a coordinate system and are represented as colorful, jagged lines that only experts can interpret. For this, Moller relies on his colleague Green, though he has his own opinion of what went wrong: "We believe that the facts that emerge through litigation will demonstrate that commercial pressure, the Boeing/Airbus competition and the drive to make money and save money resulted in the 737 Max, as initially designed and sold, being an unreasonably dangerous airplane," says Moller.

The competition between Boeing and Airbus does, in fact, appear to be a key element in these two crashes. The profitability of both companies depends on but a few products, and when it comes to the most important aircraft of all, the short- and medium-haul planes, Boeing has fallen behind Airbus, Moller says, and suddenly, once-loyal Boeing customers were buying jets from Airbus, preferring the new A320 to the outdated 737. Boeing had to act quickly. But instead of designing an altogether new aircraft, Moller says, engineers continued to make changes to the old 737 design and, in the end, came up with an aircraft that was dangerously designed.

When he talks, Moller sounds like he already has the jury in front of him. He asks rhetorical questions, which he immediately answers himself, and develops an image for his audience of a plane, wobbling and shaking from faulty software run amok, with an overwhelmed crew, at far too low an altitude, much too close to the ground -- all because the aircraft was designed and built in such great haste.

"We believe that the facts that will emerge through the litigation will demonstrate that commercial pressure, the Boeing/Airbus competition and the drive to make money and save money resulted in the 737 MAX as initially designed and sold was an unreasonably dangerous airplane," says Moller.

Of course, the engineers never meant to kill anyone, Moller hastens to add. But he says they were driven by confirmation bias as they worked toward their goal. And that goal was to deliver an aircraft as quickly as possible -- one that looked new, was more fuel efficient, that airlines would want to have and that pilots could fly immediately without requiring further training.

DER SPIEGEL

In the coming proceedings and investigations, particular attention will be paid to the time between the crash in Indonesia and the one in Ethiopia. This will be the most dangerous window for Boeing. If the prosecution can prove or find witnesses to say that people at Boeing or aviation regulators had cautioned against the further operation of the 737 Max after the Lion Air crash, it could make the company look extremely culpable. If anyone at Boeing had even the slightest inkling of the new system's inherent risks, things could get tricky.

Moller is confident the case can be won. In court, he plans to talk about trust, which he can already do very convincingly. "You board an airplane, sit down in seat 10C or 14F and you have no idea who the pilot is," Moller says. "You have no idea who was the last one to have messed around with the maintenance of the plane. You sit down, buckle up and you even worry about sitting upright and putting your feet in the right position. You are locked into this tube. Some are nervous, some are not. But all have to have absolute trust that everything is in order, the equipment and the people operating it. Absolutely safe. And if there is the slightest doubt about the safety of the plane by the airline: Don't fly. The plane must be grounded."

The Kreindler attorneys have already filed their first complaints with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago. They chose Chicago because that's where Boeing's board of directors and corporate management is located, far from the company's production facilities in Seattle. "It was Boeing's board that approved the Boeing 737 Max project," Green says. The lawyers in New York already know who the judge will be. His name is Alonso, a youthful-looking man who was appointed under Barack Obama. "This is his first major aviation case," Green says.

The Kreindler & Kreindler lawyers aren't likely to be wearing kid gloves. And they aren't only interested in damage payments, which are self-evident and could be in the hundreds of millions. (The $100 million that Boeing offered as compensation to families of the victims in early July is likely a joke in their eyes.) Instead, Moller and Green are hoping to win a claim of punitive damages, which could be much more costly to Boeing. An initial hearing took place in late June and Judge Alonso ruled that the case could proceed and the lawyers could produce their evidence.

If Moller and Green are successful with their strategy, the consequences could be grave for Boeing. It may mean a tripling of the damage payments that the company would have to pay and Boeing's insurer would not be liable. And that could threaten the aircraft manufacturer's very existence.

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