WHEN THE FIRST BOEING 737 MAX PLANE CAME OFF THE PRODUCTION LINE IN DECEMBER 2015, IT WAS THE beginning of a highly anticipated new line of aircraft for the storied company. It incorporated the latest technology and was billed by Boeing as “deliver[ing] the highest efficiency, reliability and passenger comfort in the single-aisle market.” Tragically, that promise came to a glaring halt with two back-to-back disasters in which flight control software known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) incorrectly gauged the aircrafts’ angles of ascent and prevented the pilots from manually overriding it. In total, 346 people on board Lion Air flight 610 on October 28, 2018 and Ethiopian Air flight 302 on March 10, 2019 were killed after only about 13 minutes and 6 minutes in the air, respectively. ¶ Investigative journalist Peter Robison takes a deep dive into the ongoing problems and shortcuts at Boeing that allowed the MCAS problem to get past all the existing safeguards and the aftermath of the crashes in his new book, flying blind (Doubleday, November 30). In this excerpt from the book, Robison shares the untold story of memorial for the Ethiopian Air victims and how the company excluded grieving families from planning and participating in the service in an attempt to control the narrative.
BEFORE THE PANDEMIC BECAME ALL-CONSUMING, the looming event preoccupying some at Boeing was the one-year anniversary of the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10, 2020. It had the potential to be a public relations disaster, rekindling global news coverage. Boeing and the families of the victims established an uneasy partnership to plan the memorial ceremony. The manufacturer agreed to put up the money, but to the families involved in planning the event, it began to feel like a commemoration of the BP oil spill stage-managed by BP.
One day in late January, Tim Keating, the Boeing head of Government Operations, and his deputy, Jennifer Lowe, met with relatives and representatives of the victims at Ethiopian Airlines’ headquarters next to the Addis Ababa airport. The offices had the drab appearance of a government embassy, except for the walls of the conference room where they met, which were painted a bright sea green. Keating, who’d attended a Jesuit college, the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, struck a tone of pastoral generosity and said Boeing wanted to do everything it could to make the event meaningful for the grieving families.
But he quickly laid down some ground rules. Boeing would pay for no more than two representatives per family. It would cover their hotel and food for three nights. The anniversary landed on a Tuesday, and he instructed everyone to fly in on Sunday and out Wednesday, no exceptions. It was an incongruous note after the generous opening, and people started raising objections. Families would have to choose if parents or siblings, for instance, could attend. What about divorced couples—could all the stepparents come? And what if someone wanted to arrive on Saturday instead? Boeing had already pledged to spend $100 million to support families and communities after the crashes, and now it was setting limits like a corporate benefits manager.
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