On Monday, March 11, John Quindos Karanja went to Nairobi to pick up his wife, their daughter and three grandchildren from the airport. He had prepared a small celebration for them back home, since he was to meet his youngest granddaughter for the first time.
Instead of celebrating that day, however, he had to mourn their deaths. All five were on board Ethiopian Airways’ Boeing 737 Max which had crashed, killing all 157 passengers and crew on board. The youngest victim was his nine-months-old granddaughter, Rubi.
It is important to begin any conversation about the aftermath of the ET 302 tragedy with stories like these because they are likely to get lost amid discussions about aviation technology and regulatory frameworks.
When the tragedy hit, I was struck the most by the speed at which both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) in the US took to defending their planes and shifting blame to Ethiopian Airlines, as well as the number of international publications willing to go along with that story.
One article in the New York Times even suggested that the cause of the crash might have been a terrorist attack, since the flight ET 302 originated in Ethiopia and was meant to land in Kenya – the two countries currently being involved in the fight against al-Shabab in Somalia. Another NYT piece scrutinised the training the ET 302 captain received and questioned Ethiopia Airlines’ procedures. After all, it’s easier to believe that an aeroplane belonging to an African airline was bombed or mishandled than to imagine that an American company could produce faulty aircraft.
The FAA eventually quietly backtracked on its defensiveness and grounded all the 737 Max planes flying in the US, putting to rest speculations that this was somehow a problem of poor countries and their low safety standards.
On April 4, Ethiopia’s transportation ministry told the media that the plane most likely crashed due to a mechanical problem with the new plane.
The same day, Ethiopia Airlines released a preliminary report which alleged that the MCAS system, designed to stabilise the plane and prevent stalling, was activated repeatedly minutes before the crash. In their last moments, the pilots had tried to switch the system off, following emergency procedures but had failed to take control of the plane. This was exactly the same situation the Lion Air pilots had faced in October just before the crash.
The US media also reported that the tragedy might have been prevented if the plane had been equipped with two additional indicators. These tools, which could have helped with the type of software problem the ET 302 pilots faced, were optional and Boeing charged additional money for installing them, since the FAA had not set them as a mandatory safety feature. Both Ethiopia Airlines and Lion Air apparently had decided to opt out, perhaps not knowing that the indicators were, in fact, be a “life-saving” feature, and not just an extra. And while some might cast doubt over Lion Air’s safety standards as a low-cost airline, the track record of Ethiopia Airlines has been sterling and its pilots – well-trained.
Thus, important questions are now emerging about whether Boeing had briefed companies and their crews sufficiently on the dramatic changes it introduced to the 747 series and whether its pursuit of profit margins had come at the expense of the safety of its aircraft.
Broadly speaking, these two tragedies should be a wake-up call for all of us to finally register the major holes in ethics and regulation which capitalism has poked in order to enable the world’s largest corporations to profiteer with impunity.
On March 28, lawyers for the family of Jackson Musoni, a Rwandan victim of the plane crash, filed a wrongful death claim against Boeing, alleging that the firm failed to warn of the defect in the plane’s flight control system, which eventually led to the crash.
On April 5, the family of American citizen Samya Stumo, who died in the crash, followed suit, saying in a statement: “Blinded by its greed, Boeing haphazardly rushed the 737 MAX 8 to market, with the knowledge and tacit approval of the United States Federal Aviation Administration”.
And on April 16, family members of Kenyan victim George Kabau also announced they are filing a wrongful death lawsuit against Boeing. What happens next with these and other cases that might be filed should concern us all.
This is also a moment to reflect on the role of regulatory agencies, and what happens when they give too much trust and autonomy to the entities that they regulate. What should effective domestic regulation of an industry with international reach look like? The same question is pertinent to the regulation of social media, mining and other sectors.
Boeing is a flagship US company, which has sold over 300 737 Max planes so far. It appears that international airline regulators deferred to the findings of the FAA on the 737 Max, while the FAA, in turn, deferred to Boeing itself. Where the potential impact goes far beyond borders, this approach clearly has risks, which domestic regulators in other industries should be paying attention to.
As a person who flies frequently, this story has been chilling: 189 people died on board the Lion Air plane, another 157 on ET 302 less than six months later. I keep coming back to what John Quindos Karanja might have been doing today if regulators had listened to past prejudices about different parts of the world.
He might have been out in his backyard playing with his nine-months-old granddaughter that he had never met, marvelling at the smooth curve of her cheek and the growing alertness in her eyes. He might have been listening to his daughter, in awe of how this person he had helped raise, was coming into her own as a human being. He might have been laughing at something the love of his life had said to one of the children.
No amount of money can address this tragic loss of human life, but those responsible must be held to account. As we enter the contentious phase of determining liability and accountability, these are the human stories that should guide the conversation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.