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American Pilots Union Assesses Boeing's Ability To Keep Its Planes Safe


In Ethiopia yesterday, 17 empty caskets were bourn through the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa. They were empty because the bodies of the 157 people who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash just more than a week ago were mostly destroyed by the impact and by fire. Family members have reportedly been given sacks of scorched earth from the crash site to bury instead.


Meanwhile, today also brings new questions about the FAA and about Boeing and its 737 MAX 8 plane, the one involved both in the Ethiopia crash and in last year's Lion Air crash. The Seattle Times is reporting that Boeing's analysis of a new flight control system on the 737 MAX had crucial flaws. And the report said the FAA told its engineers to delegate responsibility for assessing the safety of the plane to Boeing.

KELLY: In other words, the Times is reporting that the FAA essentially told Boeing, inspect yourself. Well, I want to bring in Dennis Tajer. He's a pilot for American Airlines and a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association. That's the union that represents American's pilots. Dennis Tajer, welcome back.

DENNIS TAJER: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: So the documents that The Seattle Times has found delegating authority to Boeing to police itself - as a pilot's union, does that concern you?

TAJER: Oh, absolutely. There's a question of modern oversight, but modern oversight does not mean undersight (ph). I want everybody checking my work, and I want to check your work. That's the ultimate goal. It's the last line of defense for our passengers. We take that very seriously and take great insult when that is potentially violated.

KELLY: Well, I was going to ask. I mentioned that you are a pilot. You are a pilot who's flown the 737 MAX. What stood out to you as most significant from that Seattle Times report?

TAJER: Assuming that it's accurate - and we'll look for the confirmation of that - that the system was adjusted, the MCAS system - and this is new information to us...

KELLY: And I'll just jump in and clarify. MCAS - that's maneuvering characteristics augmentation system. It's - basically it's that automated flight control system.

TAJER: Yes, it is. Thank you. And in the Lion Air crash, it's suspected of triggering on false indications, causing a lot of tragedy to happen. So we learned in the Seattle article - and of course we'll be looking for more information - is how this system was developed and if in fact - what it's supposed to do is recover from a stall. But if there were conditions that it wasn't aggressive enough and they tuned it up and tuned it up and tuned it up, at what point did someone come in and say, is this modeling correctly so that the pilot can actually override it? Questions like that, real foxhole-type questions, are what our pilots will be asking.

KELLY: Am I right in thinking that there were not simulators available for the pilots in your union to fly to practice the 737 MAX? And if so, why not?

TAJER: Well, the FAA chose to certify the aircraft without the requirement for simulator training.

KELLY: Is it unusual not to have a simulator available when rolling out a new model?

TAJER: It depends on the difference of the model. When an aircraft is pitched as very similar, no big deal, a couple display differences, a little nuance here - OK, that sounds reasonable. But when the sheets are pulled down and we find out a whole lot more about the aircraft that we weren't provided information on, then we have to say, OK, all bets are off here. Now we have to re-evaluate this.

KELLY: What is the latest in terms of new training to fly the 737 MAX?

TAJER: Well, after the Lion Air crash, we went to our company. We always default to a position of we would like simulators even if it's a difference model. American has told us in the last quarter we'll start training on those simulators. But I'd like to address this software update that's being talked about. It seems to be a rush to comply. That's a terminology in a cockpit that is not - is a pejorative. You never rush just to comply with a certain timeline when it comes to safety.

KELLY: Boeing, you're talking.

TAJER: Boeing, yeah. We're hearing a possible 10 to 15-minute iPad course for these differences. Based on the information that we have now, (laughter) that's something that we're going to have to talk about.

KELLY: How many pilots in the labor union? How many pilots are you speaking for today?

TAJER: Fifteen thousand pilots in American Airlines we represent.

KELLY: Do you feel that American Airlines and I guess the FAA as well - that they have your back, that your pilots will not be back flying a 737 MAX before they feel adequately trained, prepared and that the software has been put right?

TAJER: American Airlines has been extraordinary. They've had us at the table right from the Lion Air shock when they didn't even know MCAS existed. And the reality is that each of these independent stakeholders can have whatever call that they like.

The bottom line is that for the pilots, the jet doesn't move until we feel it's safe for our passengers. And that's the license that we have. So that airplane's not going to move until we're confident that it is safe and reliable and we know how to combat something if it goes awry. That's just the way it's going to be. We take it as a heavy responsibility, but we welcome it. And that's what makes our airline system in the U.S. the safest in the world.

KELLY: Thank you, Captain.

TAJER: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

KELLY: Dennis Tajer - he is a pilot, the spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the labor union representing American Airlines' pilots. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.