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737 Max: Southwest pilots sue Boeing, ex-Ethiopian Airlines whistleblower denounces carrier

Lindsey Wasson, Reuters | An aerial photo shows Boeing 737 MAX aircraft at Boeing facilities at the Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington, on September 16, 2019.

Pilots from Texas-based Southwest Airlines said Monday they had filed a lawsuit against Boeing, accusing it of “deliberately misleading” them over the 737 MAX, which has been grounded after two deadly crashes.

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Nearly 350 people died in crashes in Indonesia in October 2018 and in Ethiopia in March this year.

“We have to be able to trust Boeing to truthfully disclose the information we need to safely operate our aircraft,” captain Jonathan Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), said.

“In the case of the 737 MAX, that absolutely did not happen.”

The grounding of the 737 MAX since March eliminated more than 30,000 scheduled Southwest flights and caused over $100 million in lost wages for pilots, SWAPA said.

Southwest is the largest operator of the 737 MAX, and the aircraft may not return to passenger service until 2020.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Dallas, Texas, said Boeing had falsely claimed the plane was airworthy.

In both crashes, pilots had difficulty controlling the plane once the MCAS anti-stall handling system was activated, according to preliminary investigations.

Ethiopian engineer points finger at airline

Meanwhile, Ethiopian Airlines’ former chief engineer has filed a whistleblower complaint filed with international regulators saying the carrier went into the maintenance records on a Boeing 737 Max jet a day after it crashed this year. Yonas Yeshanew contends the breach was part of a pattern of corruption that included fabricating documents, signing off on shoddy repairs and even beating those who got out of line.

The 39-year-old engineer, who resigned this summer and is seeking asylum in the US, said that while it is unclear what, if anything, in the records was altered, the decision to go into them at all when they should have been sealed reflects a government-owned airline with few boundaries and plenty to hide.

“The brutal fact shall be exposed ... Ethiopian Airlines is pursuing the vision of expansion, growth and profitability by compromising safety,” Yeshanew said in his report, which he gave to The Associated Press after sending it last month to the US Federal Aviation Administration and other international air safety agencies.

Yeshanew’s criticism of Ethiopian’s maintenance practices, backed by three other former employees who spoke to AP, makes him the latest voice urging investigators to take a closer look at potential human factors in the Max saga and not just focus on Boeing’s faulty anti-stall system, which has been blamed in two crashes in four months.

It is not a coincidence, he said, that Ethiopian saw one of its Max planes go down when many other airlines that fly the plane suffered no such tragedy.

Ethiopian Airlines portrayed Yeshanew as a disgruntled former employee and categorically denied his allegations, which paint a blistering counterpoint to the perception of the airline as one of Africa’s most successful companies and a source of national pride.

Yeshanew alleged in his report and interviews with AP that Ethiopian is growing too fast and struggling to keep planes in the air now that it is carrying 11 million passengers a year, four times what it was handling a decade ago, including flights to Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and Newark, New Jersey. He said mechanics are overworked and pressed to take shortcuts to get planes cleared for takeoff, while pilots are flying on too little rest and not enough training.

And he produced an FAA audit from three years ago that found, among dozens of other problems, that nearly all of the 82 mechanics, inspectors and supervisors whose files were reviewed lacked the minimum requirements for doing their jobs.

Yeshanew included emails showing he urged top executives for years to end a practice at the airline of signing off on maintenance and repair jobs that he asserts were done incompletely, incorrectly or not at all. He said he stepped up his efforts following the October 29, 2018, crash of a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max in Indonesia that killed all 189 people on board. One email Yeshanew sent to CEO Tewolde Gebremariam urged him to “personally intervene” to stop mechanics from falsifying records.

Those pleas were ignored, he said. And after the March 10, 2019, nosedive crash of an Ethiopian Boeing 737 Max outside Addis Ababa that killed all 157 people on board, Yeshanew said it was clear the mindset had not changed.

Ethiopian is Africa’s biggest airline, is profitable and is one of only a few on the continent that have passed the tests necessary to allow their planes to fly into Europe and North America, with a relatively good safety record.

Yeshanew “is a disgruntled ex-employee who fabricated a false story about Ethiopian Airlines, partly to revenge for his demotion while working in Ethiopian, and partly to probably develop a case to secure asylum in the USA”, the airline said in an email to AP. “We would like to confirm once more that all his allegations are false and baseless.”

Spotlight on other factors

Yeshanew’s allegations are the latest to cast a light on factors other than what has become the overriding focus of the Max crash investigations   a system on the plane called MCAS, for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which automatically pushes the plane’s nose down when it is at risk of stalling.

Preliminary reports indicate it misfired in both fatal crashes, with pilots losing control of the planes as they fought against it. Regulators have grounded nearly 400 737 Max planes while Boeing tries to fix the problem.

Another whistleblower from Ethiopian, veteran pilot Bernd Kai von Hoesslin, told the AP in May that after Indonesia’s Lion Air crash, he pleaded with Ethiopian’s top executives to give pilots better training on the Max, predicting that if pilots are not sufficiently drilled on Boeing’s protocols for how to disable the autopilot system in the event of a misfire, “it will be a crash for sure”.

Ethiopian has said the pilots followed all the steps Boeing laid out. But the preliminary report on the crash showed they deviated from the directives and made other mistakes, notably flying the plane at an unusually high speed and inexplicably reactivating the anti-stall system shortly after manually overriding it. Six minutes into the Max flight, the plane with passengers from nearly a dozen countries cratered into the ground about 40 miles from the airport.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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