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Ethiopian Airways and Lion Air Crashes Raise Significant Questions About The Safety Of The New Boeing Airliner

13.03.2019

Dave Grimshaw, Press Officer | 0114 274 4397

Specialist aviation lawyers at Irwin Mitchell say the crash of both Ethiopian Airways Flight ET302  and Lion Air Flight 610 raise significant questions about the safety of the new Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, despite additional steps announced by Boeing and assurances by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) that the aircraft remains fit to fly.

Clive Garner, an expert aviation lawyer at Irwin Mitchell who has represented many families who lost loved ones in air disasters around the world said: “The steps taken by Boeing and the FAA to enhance safety on Board Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft are welcome. Despite this, the families of the 346 passengers and crew whose lives were cut short on board the Ethiopian Airways and Lion Air aircraft may well ask why those actions were not taken before those disasters occurred.”

All 157 passengers and crew died on Sunday 10th March 2019 when the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft they were travelling on-board crashed into the ground shortly after take-off. 

The 737 MAX 8 is the same model of Boeing aircraft which was involved in the Lion Air Flight 610 crash in Indonesia on 29th October last year which killed all 189 passengers and crew. 

Garner said: “Our thoughts are with the families of those whose lives were cut short so tragically in this latest devastating air disaster. They will rightly be seeking answers about why a brand new state of the art aircraft crashed only a few months after the tragic Lion Air disaster which also involved the same Boeing 737 MAX 8 model of aircraft. 

“It is just too early to determine if this is just a tragic coincidence, or a sign of more serious problems with the aircraft, its systems or the training and guidance given to operating airlines and pilots. Having said this, and despite not knowing the full facts of what happened, investigations so far have already identified a number of important actions which are to be taken to improve the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX 8.” 

What we know so far

In their preliminary findings, investigators examining the cause of the Lion Air 610 crash concluded that a faulty sensor indicated to the aircraft’s Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation Systems (MCAS) computer system that the aircraft was at risk of stalling. This caused MCAS to automatically drop the nose of the aircraft, causing it to descend. On a number of occasions the pilots disengaged the automatic controls and, using manual controls, struggled to lift the nose of the aircraft but the MCAS system repeatedly re-engaged, pushing the nose of the aircraft downwards.  

In the days following the Lion Air crash, the Federal Aviation Administration in the USA issued an Emergency Air Worthiness Directive confirming that, “Possible erroneous Angle of Attack inputs on Boeing 737 Max aircraft can potentially make the horizontal stabilisers repeatedly pitch the nose of the aircraft downwards making the aircraft difficult to control”. While, at the same time, Boeing issued a Bulletin aimed at ensuring flight crews were fully aware of the steps to be taken if they experienced similar difficulties. 

Reacting to this news, two pilots’ unions in the US raised concerns that pilots were not made aware of the updates to the computer software in the Boeing 737 Max 8 and did not have sufficient training to deal with an emergency situation of the kind encountered on Lion Air 610 where the on board computers received incorrect data and automatically and repeatedly pushed the nose of the aircraft downwards. Boeing has denied these criticisms.  

On 11th March 2019, despite certifying that the Boeing 737 Max 8 remains fit to fly, the FAA confirmed that it expects to mandate design enhancements to the aircrafts’ automated systems and signalling by April 2019. The FAA also stated that as well as these changes, Boeing will update the operating manuals for the aircraft and update training requirements.

Garner said: “The loss of two new aircraft and almost 350 passengers and crew in such a short period of time raises significant questions for the accident investigators examining the causes of both of these incidents while the question of whether the aircraft should continue to fly pending the outcome of the investigations has caused division among commentators and many in the aviation industry. 

“Despite the FAA’s assurances and its refusal to suspend flights by Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, a more cautious approach has been taken in a number of countries and this cautious approach appears prudent given the current uncertainties and risks. Action has now been taken to ground identical aircraft across the EU, China, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Malaysia. It is understood that around 350 Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft have already been delivered to airlines globally with many more on order. 

“Boeing itself has confirmed that it plans changes to the flight control software for the aircrafts’ MCAS system and maintains that these alterations are, “…designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer"."

Next steps 

Garner added: "The flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder have been recovered from Flight ET302 and it is hoped that they will provide sufficient information for the investigators to thoroughly and promptly complete their investigations into the cause or causes of this tragic accident. It is also hoped that the further investigation into the cause of the loss of Lion Air Flight 610 will provide early insight into exactly what went wrong and what lessons can be learned from both of these tragedies”. 

Irwin Mitchell’s Aviation law team has previously represented the families of passengers and crew killed following numerous aviation accidents around the world including the last fatal Ethiopian Airways crash, Flight 409 in 2010 which also involved a Boeing 737 and which resulted in the deaths of 90 passengers and crew following take off from Beirut; Dana Air Flight 992 which crashed in Lagos, Nigeria in 2012 causing the deaths of 153 passengers and crew;  Kenya Airways Flight KQ507 (again a Boeing 737) which crashed in Cameroon in 2007 killing 105 passengers; the Germanwings tragedy; the Shoreham Airshow disaster and many other aviation accidents in countries including Tanzania, Venezuela, Thailand, France, Spain, Germany, Eire, England, Scotland, the USA and elsewhere.