Pilot’s mother criticizes FAA, Boeing for rushing Max’s comeback

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Relatives comfort each other at the Lion Air flight JT610 crisis center at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Oct. 29, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Rony Zakaria.

The mother of a pilot who died in a 737 Max crash said the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing are bringing the plane back to service prematurely, with some safety requests still unmet.

Sangeeta Suneja, whose son flew the Lion Air plane that plunged into sea in October 2018, criticized Boeing for returning the jet to the skies before a third sensor to measure air speed — a request by European regulators — is implemented. The FAA and Boeing also should have waited until China, the biggest market for the model, and other regulators around the world give their opinions, said Suneja, 56, who has worked in aviation for more than 30 years and has sued Boeing.

“Boeing and FAA are setting a wrong precedent for the aviation industry as well as humanity,” Suneja said in a phone interview from New Delhi. “They still have to answer a lot of questions.”

The FAA said Wednesday Boeing’s 737 Max can safely return to service with an extensive package of fixes, after a scarring 20-month hiatus prompted by a pair of fatal crashes. The FAA is requiring repairs to a safety system that went haywire in the two crashes and multiple other flaws discovered during months of reviews. It also mandated new pilot training for the Max, focusing on issues that arose in the accidents.

Boeing declined to comment beyond its statement on Wednesday. Representatives for the FAA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment outside regular business hours.

Suneja’s son, Bhavye, a 31-year-old Indian with more than 6,000 flight hours behind him, lost control of the Lion Air plane after an automated system repeatedly pushed its nose down. All 189 people on board died. The following March, a 737 Max operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed into a field near Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board and prompting a worldwide grounding of the jet.

Europe’s top aviation regulator said in October the 737 Max was ready to return to service before 2020 was out, even without the additional sensor his agency was demanding. The development of the additional sensor will take up to 24 months and will lead to even higher safety levels, said Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

Adding to her criticisms, Suneja also said Boeing hasn’t said how it will address the emotional impact the two crashes had on pilots and crew. She suggested that the travel slump caused by the coronavirus pandemic is making airline employees less eager to demand support, a situation she said benefits Boeing.

“Pilots have become so politically weak to raise these questions, raise this alarm, because there are no jobs,” said Suneja, a senior manager at Air India Ltd.’s commercial division, where she has been for more than three decades. Airlines and aviators “have the minimum negotiating power in their hands to talk about this, and Boeing is sort of cashing in on that.”

Boeing faces a bill of at least $20 billion in Max-related claims, in what has become the one of the worst crisis in the company’s century-long history. Suneja and her family sued Boeing in September, demanding a trial for wrongful death.

While Boeing has forced out several executives since the crashes, Suneja said such actions don’t go far enough.

“Is losing jobs a punishment? It was a criminal offense,” she said. “Pilots and even engineers are jailed for so many aviation accidents, and cases go on for several years. Here, the corporate structure protects them, and then they take all the money and get immunity from everything.”


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