Forgotten Families: Boeing and the Ongoing Tragedy of Ethiopian Flight 302

On September 8, 1994, US Air Flight 427, a Boeing 737, plunged uncontrollably 6000 feet crashing into a wooded area outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania killing all 132 people aboard the aircraft. Beyond the large loss of life and immediate consequences of that loss to the families, two other major events occurred. One was Boeing’s response to beginning one of the most complex (and at the time the longest) investigations in the history of the US National Transportation Safety Board. The second was the beginning of the push to establish the US Family Assistance Act. An Act designed to prevent more harm and damage to families, as well as ensure their needs were taken into account post-accident.

Despite those two events occurring over 25 years ago, and the numerous opportunities to learn, families are still suffering from the same post-accident errors and problems caused by the response of others. Why does this happen?

Maybe Boeing can answer part of that question. When you read their response to the investigation of US Air 427, as well as similar accidents such as United 585, TWA 841 or Eastwind 517, there is the similar pattern of the aircraft is good, it is a training and crew issue. The standard Boeing response. In the case of the 737 Max, the initial response was similar, and in fairness to Boeing, they have changed and been more open in taking responsibility for the loss. But what about the response and treatment of the families? Everything we see in regard to Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian 302 shows a complete lack of understanding or learning how to respond to the consequences of a crash and caring for families.

Perhaps Ethiopian Airlines can also answer. In the US Air 427 crash families wrote asking about the care of the deceased, burial locations and times for mass burials, pleadings with airline executives to involve them and keep them informed were all met by deaf ears. It was these stories of anguish, of the secondary trauma they needlessly experienced, that helped propel the US to pass the landmark Family Assistance Act, containing 18 specific requirements for US carriers and Foreign Carriers that operate to the US. Requirement number 5, of 49 USC 41113 specifically states –

 “(5) An assurance that the family of each passenger will be consulted about the disposition of all remains and personal effects of the passenger within the control of the air carrier.”

In response to Ethiopian 302, I have now read of a mass burial done with no consultation or involvement with families, in which the airline and Boeing attended, but many of the families could not.

This is not something for the families to get over, it is unconscionable and an atrocious way to treat people. While the crash of Ethiopian 302 does not fall under the US law, that law is the basis for International Civil Aviation Organisation Guidance and laws in multiple other countries. Further, Ethiopian as a carrier which operates to the US has filed with the US Department of Transportation and the US National transportation Safety board a plan to care for families, as required by US law for foreign carriers that occurs while traveling to or from the US. This tells me their family assistance plan is merely a compliance plan, and not plan to care for people. This is something I would encourage the US Department of Transportation to consider and review.

Finally, crashes are difficult to respond to; they require experience and the ability to keep the number one priority, “not making it worse” – because you can’t make it better.  This includes taking care of the living and preserving the dignity of the deceased. The families’ first call is not to an attorney or the media, it is to the airline. It is not a call looking to place blame, it is a call looking for help and someone to help guide them through the consequences of the loss.

I feel sorry for the families because it does not have to be this way and they do not deserve to be treated this way. But unless there is change such as damages for the post-accident response, sanctions by the government regulatory agencies, and most importantly an understanding of what is required then I am afraid we will keep seeing stories like this.