Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg faced the music before US lawmakers on Tuesday (29 October) at the US Senate Commerce Committee where senators questioned the CEO on why Boeing fell short when it came to the safety of the now-grounded 737 MAX. His testimony came on the heels of the release of the final report by Indonesian investigators into the crash of Lion Air flight 610 that killed more than 180 people and was largely attributed to faults with the Boeing-made plane.
Muilenburg, who has never fully accepted blame on behalf of Boeing for the crash and that of an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed in March, started his testimony by apologising to the families of the 346 victims of both crashes and told the Senate panel he was “open to reassessing how much responsibility” his company takes on for guaranteeing that it’s a revamped 737 MAX are safe but stopped short of saying he supported stricter laws governing the certification of commercial airplanes. “We have to get the balance right,” Muilenburg said. “It’s very important we have strong government oversight, strong FAA oversight.”
At the hearing, the Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sharply accused Boeing of engaging in “a pattern of deliberate concealment”, noting that Boeing’s 1,600-page pilot’s manual mentions the so-called MCAS anti-stall system just once. Blumenthal accused Muilenberg and Boeing of supplying “flying coffins as a result of Boeing deciding to conceal MCAS from pilots”.
Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration have come under fire from US lawmakers, foreign regulators and the flying public – as well as the families of the 346 dead passengers – for moves in past years that have pushed more of the commercial plane certification process and oversight to the industry instead of having a strong government inspection process.
US lawmakers said in the hearing and in past statements that they feel the pendulum has swung too far in favour of in the industry instead of having independent or government authorities do the certifications.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Boeing had misled his office after the crashes, blaming them on pilot error. In reality, Blumenthal said: “Those pilots never had a chance.” Blumenthal asked Muilenburg to commit to supporting efforts to change the safety certification system, but Muilenburg committed only to participating in its efforts. He denied it was the company’s position to blame the pilots.“We are responsible for our airplanes,” Muilenburg said, according to media reports.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) also slammed Boeing and the FAA, pointing out that recently released correspondence between the manufacturer and regulator reflected “a disturbing level of casualness and flippancy” that seemed to corroborate criticisms of an “inappropriately close relationship” between Boeing and the FAA. In one of the emails, Boeing’s former chief 737 technical pilot, Mark Forkner, said he would be “jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by FAA etc.,” a reference to the company’s successful campaign to minimise training for pilots who would be flying the MAX. Pressed by Wicker on when Muilenburg learned of that email, the CEO said he had been informed of the details “just recently,” as they were being reported publicly, according to a New York Times report of the testimony.
“I don’t recall being briefed on the documents any time prior to that,” Muilenburg said. “The comments, the values, the approaches that are described in those emails, are counter to our values.”
Muilenburg said the company had made mistakes, and he expressed deep remorse. “As a husband and father, I am heartbroken by your losses,” he told survivors of those killed in Indonesia and in Ethiopia under similar circumstances within five months. The family members, sitting three rows back from Muilenburg, at one point held up photographs of their lost husbands, wives and children.
Boeing has been heavily criticised because of a new automated feature on the MAX, designed to prevent a stall, received erroneous sensor data and repeatedly forced the nose down. Information about the feature — the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System — had intentionally been kept out of the Flight Crew Operating Manual on Boeing’s assumption that it would only rarely kick in. “Delete MCAS,” Forkner wrote to an FAA official in 2017 as the plane’s five-year certification was nearing the finish line.
The deletion served Boeing’s commercial interest at the time, which was to minimise the regulations it had to follow and the amount of costly training required of its customers. It also helped keep training costs down for airlines that would be buying the MAX, which was a key consideration because Boeing was in heavy competition against the A320 manufactured by Airbus and was seen as a direct threat to the 737 programme, which has been a cash cow for Boeing. Less than five months after the Indonesian tragedy, an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed in similar circumstances, killing another 157 people.
In the Senate session, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a former Army helicopter pilot, challenged Muilenburg’s assertion that the development of MCAS followed industry standards. She said the feature was designed in such a way that it worked against pilots’ training to pull back on their controls when the nose of their plane dips. “You’ve not been telling the committee the whole truth,” she said.
Muilenburg pushed back against criticism from senators about the safety certification process used for planes in the United States, which includes a convoluted structure known as Organisation Designation Authorisation (ODA). Under that system, the FAA gives manufacturers such as Boeing the job of finding whether the company has met minimum FAA safety standards for airplanes. But U.S. and foreign safety experts convened by the FAA said in a report earlier this month that the FAA does not receive the information it needs to make many crucial judgments about safety. Critics inside and outside government have said the arrangement is too cozy, is not technically rigorous enough and is set to get worse after Congress voted last year to broaden the oversight powers the FAA gives to Boeing and other companies. Later, when asked by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) whether the certification process should revert to the FAA, Muilenburg emphasised the need for collaboration. “We are open to improving it. But the idea that we can tap the deep technical expertise of our companies across the aerospace industry is a valuable part of the certification process,” Muilenburg said. Tester said he remained unconvinced by the company’s pledges, according to media reports.
“Boeing has had an incredibly valuable name, but I’ve got to tell you, I would walk before I was to get on a 737 MAX,” Tester said. “I would walk. There’s no way. The question becomes when issues like this happen, it costs your company huge. And so you shouldn’t be cutting corners, and I see corners being cut, and this committee got to do something to stop that from happening.”
Muilenburg faces more testimony on Wednesday 30 October when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee holds its own hearings.
On the eve of Tuesday’s Senate hearing, more than a dozen family members of victims from the Ethiopian Airlines crash met privately with FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell and continued to press for the Boeing jets to remain grounded until significant changes are made to the certification process. The families also are scheduled to meet with Boeing executives following Wednesday’s hearing.
Paul Njoroge, who lost his wife, their three children, and his mother-in-law in the Ethiopian crash, said Muilenburg failed to answer many questions or provide details about decisions made after the first crash. “Why did they continue allowing the planes to fly?” Mr. Njoroge said in an interview outside the hearing room. “Mr. Muilenburg is very good in beating around the bush. He never answers the questions unequivocally.”
Boeing has yet to submit plans for software upgrades and training fixes needed before regulators consider allowing the MAX back into service.