Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate whose grandniece was killed in the crash of a 737 Max in Ethiopia last month, is calling on US legislators to return campaign contributions from Boeing, after two deadly accidents were blamed on safety lapses.
In an interview with the Financial Times, the 85-year-old activist and former US presidential candidate promised to expand his campaign to prevent the grounded 737 Max fleet from ever getting back into the skies.
Boeing’s close relationship with its regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, has become a focus of investigations into the approval process for the 737 Max, while the company’s extensive contacts on Capitol Hill have also been noted by critics.
Mr Nader said that hundreds of lawmakers had taken contributions from Boeing. “We are going to call on Congress to return all Boeing contributions,” he said. “Congress is complicit in all this.”
Mr Nader’s grandniece, Samya Stumo, was among the 157 people who died in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 on March 10. She had been flying to Kenya for work as a health financing analyst with ThinkWell, a non-profit group focused on improving healthcare in low and middle-income countries.
Her family is suing Boeing in federal court in Chicago, one of a number of lawsuits filed in connection with the crash and an earlier 737 Max accident in Indonesia which killed 189.
“All the investigations can be pulled back politically,” Mr Nader said. “The one attack on Boeing that can’t be pulled back politically is the civil lawsuits.”
Boeing’s campaign contributions have flowed to politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Donald Trump, Beto O’Rourke, one of the Democratic challengers for president, and Maria Cantwell, the most senior Democrat on the Senate commerce committee. From 2016 to 2018, the company donated $4.6m in total.
Roger Wicker, the Republican chairman of that committee received $10,000 from Boeing’s political action committee in the last election cycle. Mr Wicker employs John Keast, who previously lobbied on behalf of Boeing, as director of staff on his committee.
Mr Wicker is planning a hearing on aviation safety, though aides say he wants to allow the FAA investigation to take place first.
Mr Nader said investors were underestimating the damage that the 737 Max crisis had done to Boeing’s global reputation with passengers. Preliminary crash investigations implicated the aircraft’s anti-stall software, called MCAS, in both incidents. The company has been testing a software fix, but it remains unclear how long it might take for regulators in the US and elsewhere to approve the changes and allow the fleet back into the air.
The manufacturer “put profits before safety” in rushing to market a plane whose design, Mr Nader said, was aerodynamically flawed. As a result, Boeing was suffering “brand stigmatisation” with ordinary passengers and consumers should boycott the aircraft, he said.
In a statement, Boeing said that the 737 Max “was certified in accordance with the identical FAA requirements and processes that have governed certification of all previous new airplanes and derivatives”, adding that the administration “considered the final configuration and operating parameters of MCAS during Max certification, and concluded that it met all certification and regulatory requirements”.
Mr Nader, who came to prominence through consumer safety campaigns that took on the automobile industry in the 1960s, predicted more revelations as US congressional committees and the Department of Transportation carried out their investigations.
“I have a pretty good record for prognostication: everything we know that is averse to Boeing is a fraction of what Boeing knows itself, and it’s spilling out,” he said.