‘They can’t move on’: families of Boeing crash victims demand justice | Boeing

Paul Kiernan struggles to talk about what happened on 10 March 2019. He walked his partner, Joanna Toole, to a taxi, put her bag in the back and kissed her goodbye. He told her he loved her, and asked her to let him know when she landed safely. The message never came.

Toole’s flight, Ethiopian Airlines 302, crashed minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa killing all 157 people on board.

It was the second fatal disaster involving a Boeing 737 Max jet in less than five months. On 29 October 2018, Lion Air flight 610 crashed minutes after taking off from Jakarta. All 189 people on board died.

“For others, I guess they read it and see it as a business story, or something,” Kiernan said. “But for us, it’s a very personal thing.”

Boeing did what beleaguered companies so often do when they want to repair a battered reputation: ousted its boss, reassured the regulators and attempted to draw a line under the matter. All the while, hundreds of families whose loved ones lost their lives awaited justice. Five years later, and even after this announcement, many feel they are still waiting.

The Max disasters seemed to be fading in the public and political arena until this year, when Boeing again came under intense scrutiny after a cabin panel blew off a brand-new 737 Max, minutes after taking off from Portland, Oregon. The incident reignited questions about the aerospace giant’s management, production line and the fundamental safety of its planes.

It is “the luck of God”, according to Kiernan, that a third fatal crash was avoided.

As Boeing grappled with another safety crisis and scrambled to reassure alarmed regulators, furious airlines and anxious passengers, the Department of Justice (DoJ) reconsidered a controversial agreement it struck in 2021.

The agreement, which was branded a “sweetheart deal” by victims’ families, protected Boeing from a criminal conspiracy charge tied to the two Max crashes – and avoided a trial – provided the planemaker overhaul its compliance program and pay $2.5bn, including compensation and a criminal fine of $243.6m.

“The families felt like they were completely brushed aside and ignored by the government: the very people they trusted to do the right thing, and hold Boeing to account,” according to Erin Applebaum, attorney at Kreindler & Kreindler, who represents some of those who had loved ones on board the Ethiopian flight, including Kiernan.

The justice department signaled it was willing to change course in May, however, when it declared that Boeing had breached the 2021 deal. Its conclusion was welcomed by victims’ families, who demanded that the company be criminally prosecuted, after all.

But when officials informed the relatives of their plan late last month, it proved another bitter blow. While Boeing will be charged with fraud, the company was offered a plea agreement by the justice department, again enabling it to avoid trial.

Provided the deal is approved by the US district judge Reed O’Connor in Texas, Boeing would have to pay a fine of up to $487.2m, although this may be lowered if the judge takes account of the previous fine; spend “at least” $455m on compliance and safety programs; and work under an independent compliance monitor to scrutinize its actions for three years.

“This sweetheart deal fails to recognize that because of Boeing’s conspiracy, 346 people died,” said Paul Cassell, an attorney representing some of the relatives. “Through crafty lawyering between Boeing and DoJ, the deadly consequences of Boeing’s crime are being hidden.”

Under the agreement, Boeing’s board of directors would also have to meet with the grieving families of those who died.

Above all, many of the victims’ relatives want accountability they feel has yet to materialize. Boeing’s public response to January’s panel blowout has only heightened their anger.

Kiernan contrasted his struggle to find the words with the “practiced apology” delivered by Dave Calhoun on Capitol Hill. Before a tense Senate hearing in June, the Boeing CEO turned to relatives of the crash victims and said he was sorry for their “gut-wrenching” losses.

“By the way he’s saying it, you know he doesn’t understand, or that he doesn’t mean it,” said Kiernan. A matter of minutes later, he noted, Calhoun told senators he was “proud of every action” Boeing had taken on safety.

In the spring, Brian West, Boeing’s chief financial officer, described how the company had for years prioritized moving planes through factories over getting it done right. “That’s got to change,” he told a conference. “The leadership team got it in the immediate aftermath of January 5.”

The comment stung Javier de Luis. “I would have thought that they would have ‘gotten it’ five years ago,” the aerospace engineer told senators in April. His sister, Graziella, was on Ethiopian flight 302.

“I was just flabbergasted after I saw that quote,” Javier said. “The two crashes should have been a notice to clean house, to wipe the slate clean, to figure out how to get back to the company they used to be. It doesn’t seem to have registered five years ago, and honestly, it remains to be seen whether that registers now.”

The world “should not be surprised” by Boeing’s latest crisis, he added. “We should not be surprised at the door, the mis-drilled holes, the whistleblowers. That is the result of 20 years of focusing on financial performance over safety.”

A string of whistleblowers have come forward with allegations of safety and quality issues, and claims they were ignored, marginalized and even threatened for raising the alarm internally. Boeing has insisted some allegations about its 787 Dreamliner and 777 jets are “inaccurate”, and claimed employees have been emboldened in recent months to speak up with safety and quality concerns.

Kiernan knows who he trusts. “Which one do I believe – all of these whistleblowers that have nothing to gain from any of this, but are stepping out and are saying that there are major problems in the company? Or do I believe this guy [Calhoun] who’s getting paid $33m, a 45% increase in his salary from last year, and that has everything to lose from this thing going wrong? Who is more likely to be lying?”

The panel flew off an Alaska Airlines flight in January almost exactly three years after Boeing “promised to make all of these safety changes” as part of its first agreement with the justice department, Kiernan observed. “All of those people could have died.”

Applebaum, the attorney, could scarcely believe one headline describing the justice department’s “wrenching” decision over whether to prosecute Boeing. “Do you know who has to make a wrenching decision every day? It’s these families – to make the decision to get out of bed, and keep fighting for the people they lost instead of trying to put things in the past and move on.”

While January’s cabin blowout reignited media interest in Boeing, and jolted regulators into action, the relatives have been “beating this drum” for five long years, Applebaum noted. “Do you know how hard it is to relive the worst day of your life over and over and over? Every time they come to Washington, and every time they come to Texas, and every time they do an interview, they have to relive those days over again.

“They have to hold pictures of the people they lost. I mean, they can’t move on while this is happening. But they’re doing it because it’s so important to them to get justice for their loved ones, and to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody ever again.”