Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of troubled plane maker Boeing, faced calls to resign from US congressmen who questioned the company’s commitment to safety as a second day of hearings in Washington, DC focused on internal Boeing communications that showed employees were worried about the 737 MAX and its system that was designed to prevent a stall but instead has been implicated in two crashes that killed 346 people. In a sharp exchange with Rep. Jesus Garcia, (D-Ill), Muilenburg pushed back against claims that Boeing was only interested in profits and not people and said Boeing’s “business model is about safe airplanes.”
Garcia pushed back at the CEO and said “it’s pretty clear there has been a culture of greed and compromising safety at Boeing…Mr. Muilenburg, you did everything to drive profits over safety. You skirted certification requirements or regulators at every corner, and your employees even admit to lying to the FAA. There are basically two ways that this plays out. You either truly didn’t realise that you had an defective plane, which demonstrates gross incompetence and or negligence, or you did know you had a defective plane but still tried to push it to market. In which case, in which case it’s just clear corruption. Either way, Mr. Muilenburg, you’re still the captain of this ship. A culture of negligence, incompetence or corruption starts at the top and it starts with you. You padded your personal finances by putting profits over safety and now 346 people, including eight Americans, are dead on your watch…I think it’s time that you submitted your resignation, don’t you?”
Muilenburg replied, “congressman, I respectfully disagree with your premise on what drives our company.”
Garcia then concluded: “Ok, well whether or not you or your colleagues are incriminated in the ongoing criminal investigation, the facts remain: It was either gross negligence, incompetence or corruption. You’re at the top. I think it’s pretty clear to me, to the families of the victims and to the American public that you should resign and do it immediately.”
The two days of testimony before both the House and the Senate, have seen internal Boeing documents come to light that that showed Boeing employees were concerned about the design of the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) and were worried that Boeing’s leadership was putting too much pressure to produce too many planes too fast.
The House Transportation Committee on Wednesday (30 October) released a redacted copy of a 2015 email in which a Boeing expert questioned making the MCAS depend on just one sensor to measure the plane’s angle of attack (AOA). “Are we vulnerable to single AOA sensor failures with the MCAS implementation or is there some checking that occurs?” the employee wrote. Boeing went ahead with the single-sensor design, with no backup to prevent MCAS from pushing the plane into a dive. Investigators believe faulty readings from a single sensor triggered nose-down commands before both crashes that involved Lion Air in Indonesia and Ethiopian Airlines. The two crashes killed 346 people.
Boeing has consistently put people over profits, according to congressmen like Rep. Peter DeFazio, (D-Ore), and chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He said Boeing showed a “lack of candor all through this.” DeFazio and others highlighted Boeing’s failure to tell pilots about MCAS until after the Lion Air MAX crashed a year ago. The representatives also slammed Muilenburg over his compensation, which rose last year to US$23.4 million, including more than US$13 million in extra incentive pay, according to a regulatory filing. Some called for Muilenburg to step down as CEO. The Boeing board stripped him off the title of chairman this month.
Muilenburg tried his best to put a positive spin on things, saying Boeing is making changes to the MAX and to the company to focus more on safety. He conceded that the company “made some mistakes” in designing MCAS and in not telling regulators and pilots about the system. “We are learning, we still have more to learn, we have to work to do to restore the public’s trust,” Muilenburg said.
The Boeing CEO acknowledged that he knew before the second crash that a senior Boeing test pilot had raised concerns after trying MCAS in a flight simulator. That surprised lawyers who are suing Boeing on behalf of families who lost relatives on the flights. “The CEO knew about this email and text after the Lion Air crash. There is no excuse for not grounding the fleet at that time,” said Nomaan Husain, a Houston lawyer,
The House hearing was also told that a senior Boeing manager complained that workers were being pushed too hard to churn out 52 of the 737s a month in 2018, raising safety issues at the factory near Seattle. In an email obtained by the House committee, he urged a superior to stop production, and said he was hesitant to put his own family on a Boeing plane. Muilenburg said the manager, who has since retired, “raised some good concerns” that the company has addressed. However, Boeing didn’t reduce the production rate until this April, when the grounding of the Max halted deliveries of new Max jets.
Boeing had money riding on making sure that the FAA didn’t require extensive pilot retraining because of MCAS. Boeing had promised Southwest a rebate of US$1 million per plane — US$280 million at current orders — if pilots needed extensive training for the Max. DeFazio said this put pressure on employees to make sure the Max didn’t trigger a requirement for that additional training.