Families of passengers who were killed in a Boeing 737 Max crash in Ethopia lobbied United States’ Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Tuesday to slow what they consider a rush to allow the plane to fly again.
Two of the relatives who took part in the two-hour meeting in Washington said Chao promised that the government would take as long as necessary to ensure the plane was safe, but stopped short of agreeing to an entirely new, comprehensive review.
A spokesman for Chao said the department and the Federal Aviation Administration have taken unprecedented steps to understand the accidents and the FAA’s certification of the plane in 2017.
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One of those steps, the spokesman said, included Chao’s appointment of a special committee to review the FAA’s process of certifying planes. The FAA is an agency under the Transportation Department.
After the meeting, several dozen relatives held a vigil on the steps of the Transportation Department headquarters to mark six months since the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302.
They carried pictures of many of the 157 people who died.
The crash of the Ethopian plane followed the October 2018 crash of a Max jet operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air in which 189 people were killed.
Separately, Boeing disclosed Tuesday that it delivered just 18 airliners in August, bringing the total to 276 planes in the first eight months of the year, compared with 481 in the same period last year. Max deliveries have been halted since March.
Chicago-based Boeing has said it expects FAA approval for the Max to fly again early in the fourth quarter.
US airlines do not expect to use the plane until at least December, and the wait could be longer in other countries because of signs that international regulators will take a slower approach than the FAA.
Demand for complete review
A group of 11 family members asked Chao to direct the FAA to conduct a completely new review of the Max instead of focussing on changes Boeing made to flight-control software called MCAS, which has beem implicated in both crashes.
Chao did not commit to full re-certification, but said the FAA will wait for recommendations from a technical review board before it lets the plane fly, according to a department spokesman.
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The department is also being advised by a review panel that includes international regulators and by the special committee that Chao appointed, but the FAA would not wait for those reports before deciding whether to approve the Max for flight, the spokesman said.
Michael Stumo, whose daughter Samya died in the Ethiopian crash, said those panels and foreign regulators “can go far beyond just reviewing MCAS. Time will tell, but we were encouraged by the meeting.”
European officials have said they will insist on test flights during extreme manoeuvres – both with Boeing’s new software and with MCAS turned off – to judge the stability of the plane.
The families also want pilots to train on flight simulators before the Max is returned to service.
Boeing, which wants to avoid further delays, believes that computer training is adequate for now, with simulator sessions later.
People in the meeting said Chao pointed to the small number of Max simulators, making immediate simulator training less feasible.
For about half the meeting, Chao and several deputies listened to family members describe the passengers who died in the Ethiopian crash.
“It was very emotional,” said Paul Njoroge, whose wife, three young children and mother-in-law were killed in the crash. The family members described their losses “and how their life has been ever since the crash,” he said.
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“We are not going to go away until the correct processes are being followed in ungrounding the plane, if it’s ever ungrounded,” Njoroge said.
Late on Monday, the head of Ethiopia‘s police said the identification of human remains from the crash was complete.
Families heard the news that identification had been completed through the media.
Collecting and identifying the remains has been a fraught process. Families of those who perished complained of a lack of information about recovery efforts during which Ethiopian workers used metal aircraft parts to dig in the soil.
Relatives of the crash victims found bones at the site as recently as July, Reuters reported last week.
Many relatives are pressing for the farmland where the plane crashed, about 60km east of the capital, Addis Ababa, to be turned into a permanent memorial.