Boeing chief faces anger over 737 crashes at hearing

Boeing chief faces anger over 737 crashes at hearing
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Boeing President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg testified before Congress for the first time Tuesday since two deadly crashes of his company's 737 Max jets, apologizing to the victims' families and facing tough questions from lawmakers.

“I wanted to let you know, on behalf of myself and all of the men and women of Boeing, how deeply sorry I am,” Muilenburg told the Senate Commerce Committee, in a hearing that came one year to the day after one of the 737s, Lion Air Flight 610, crashed, killing 189.

In a dramatic moment, family members of crash victims were recognized by the committee and held up photos of those they lost.

Muilenburg vowed that the deaths would push the company to work to ensure the safety of air travelers.

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“As we observe today the solemn anniversary of the loss of Lion Air Flight 610, please know that we carry the memory of these accidents, and of your loved ones, with us every day," he said. "They will never be forgotten, and these tragedies will continue to drive us to do everything we can to make our airplanes and our industry safer."

Muilenburg in his opening statement sought to assure senators that Boeing has made necessary improvements since the crashes.

“We have learned and are still learning from these accidents, Mr. Chairman. We know we made mistakes and got some things wrong. We own that, and we are fixing them. We have developed improvements to the 737 Max to ensure that accidents like these never happen again,” he said.

“We also are learning deeper lessons that will result in improvements in the design of future airplanes. As painful as it can be, the process of learning from failure, and even from tragedies like these, has been essential to the advances in airplane safety since the industry began roughly a century ago,” he continued.

But the criticism from lawmakers was withering.

Senators expressed anger that Boeing reportedly approved the design of the 737 Max despite concerns from their own pilots and did not act more quickly to address the problems after the Lion Air crash in October 2018. Five months later, another 737 Max, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, crashed, killing 157.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) grilled Muilenburg, saying that since the crashes his "anger has only grown." He told the CEO that the victims of the crashes died “as a result of a pattern of deliberate concealment.”

Blumenthal blasted Boeing for initially blaming the crashes on “pilot error,” saying “those pilots never had a chance, those loved ones never had a chance.”

Muilenburg spoke on the decision not to pull the Max after the first crash with regret.

“I think about that decision over and over again.” 

Boeing issued a warning about the MCAS flight control system, which pushed the planes’ noses down, but didn’t ground the jet until the second crash.

Critics have seized on messages from Boeing's chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner in 2016, two years before the first crash, suggesting that there were problems with the MCAS system which contributed to the crashes on the 737 Max, after conducting simulator tests.

How Boeing handled that information and whether it shared enough with regulators is a key point in the controversy. A government task force earlier this month found that Boeing did not share enough information with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials about the automated plane system in question. The task force concluded that if regulators knew more about how the MCAS Software System worked they might have intensified scrutiny on the 737 Max. MCAS is intended to help stabilize planes, but the task force found that the FAA was not aware of details about changes to the system during development.

In one email, Forkner said he was "Jedi mind-tricking" overseas regulators into certifying the Max model.

Blumenthal asked if Muilenburg was aware that information about the MCAS, or maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, was not fully covered in training manuals.

Muilenburg again tried to offer sympathy to the victims, but Blumenthal sharply responded, “You’ve done that, and my time is limited.”

“I’m asking you about Boeing policy as reflected in this email, its chief test pilot deciding he was going to mislead pilots who were then going to take passengers into the air and turn these planes into flying coffins,” Blumenthal continued.

Lawmakers largely pressed Boeing on its relationship with the FAA. Critics have said the aerospace giant is cozy with regulators, who they say regularly hand off oversight of safety developments to manufacturers.

Committee Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerMicrosoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate Trump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Pay America's Coast Guard MORE (R-Miss.) addressed the perceived coziness between the FAA and the industry, specifically the Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) program, which allows airlines to self-certify some aspects of airplane development. Supporters say the program has streamlined the regulatory process, but critics worry it could lead to safety lapses.

“While the ODA has been used to certify many aircraft over the years, some have criticized the system for permitting an inappropriate relationship between companies and their safety regulator,” Wicker said. The chairman said Forkner's messages “reflect a disturbing level of casualness and flippancy that seemed to corroborate these criticisms.”

“The relationship between regulating agencies and the organizations they regulate is important, but so are the internal reforms that Boeing is implementing,” Wicker added.

The criticism was bipartisan. Committee ranking member Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellMicrosoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate Senators introduce cybersecurity workforce expansion bill Boeing chief faces anger over 737 crashes at hearing MORE (D) from Washington, a state where Boeing says it is the largest private employer, also questioned Boeing’s approach to regulation.

“If you want to be the leader in aviation manufacturing, you have to be the leader in aviation safety,” said Cantwell. “We cannot have a race for commercial airplanes become a race to the bottom when it comes to safety — safety always has to be job one."

Cantwell also excoriated the company’s approach to the MCAS.

“I just don’t understand how you’re going to have sensors on the outside of a plane and you’re going to let that send a command to the inside of the plane that basically says ‘trim the plane 2.5 degrees,’ and all of a sudden you’re going to be yelled at from the cockpit from somebody saying ‘pull up,’ and at the same time you’re being forced down in your nose and you have seconds to respond because you’re in takeoff,” she said.

“That doesn’t seem like a lot of testing was done, to me, because if it was then the Lion Air incident wouldn’t have happened,” she added.

The 737 Max has been grounded since March. The FAA initially resisted grounding the planes even as other nations acted before President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE made the decision amid public pressure.

Since then, Boeing has taken a battering in the public eye. Muilenburg was removed as chairman but kept his position as CEO earlier this month.

Blumenthal asked Muilenburg if he would attribute the crashes to regulatory rollbacks that allowed airlines to self-police themselves and whether he would back legislation to beef up the FAA's oversight.

“We’ll commit to participating in those reform efforts and providing our input,” Muilenburg said.

“I think the FAA is part of this problem as well and it is the result at the end of this day of Boeing rushing this process, putting profits over safety, rushing the certification process ... prioritizing speed and cost over safety,” Blumenthal added.

Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersAdvocates step up efforts for horse racing reform bill after more deaths Warren doubles down — to Democrats' chagrin, and Trump's delight Senators urge Trump to fill vacancies at DHS MORE (D-Mich.) also pressed Muilenburg on whether the industry was subject to appropriate levels of oversight, asking, “Has the balance gone too far in allowing the industry to police itself?”

“I don’t know if I can characterize it that way ... my sense is we could look at the balance,” Muilenburg responded.

“Is it out of balance right now, yes or no?” Peters pressed.

“I think it can be improved,” Muilenburg responded.

Updated at 2:23 p.m.