Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg testified before a pair of congressional committees for the first time since two deadly crashes of 737 MAX airliners, which killed a combined 346 people. His testimony follows a report in the Washington Post that top Boeing executives failed to intervene after two top pilots at the company identified problems with automated flight control software that would lead to the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The Justice Department is also conducting criminal investigation against Boeing. Muilenburg admitted Boeing failed to provide pilots with additional key safety system information.
During the hearing, Muilenburg acknowledged for the first time that he had been briefed, prior to the second crash, of messages from a test pilot who had raised safety concerns about the 737 Max. Boeing said it gave those messages to the Department of Justice in early 2019, but only alerted the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress to the existence of those messages in the past few weeks.
The House Transportation Committee released a redacted copy of a 2015 email in which a Boeing expert questioned making the flight system called MCAS depend on just one sensor to measure the plane’s pitch — its “angle of attack,” or AOA. 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. Muilenburg explained changes Boeing is making to the Max and other steps it is taking to improve safety. He conceded that the company “made some mistakes” in designing MCAS and telling regulators and pilots about the system.
Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure also focused on why Boeing decided to only have one sensor on the outside of the plane, with no back-up, to alert pilots when the angle of the aircraft was off. They also asked why the plane’s safety system only gave pilots four seconds to react to take back control of the plane if a malfunction occurred. While acknowledging that Boeing planned to make fixes to the craft, some lawmakers also questioned why the company took so long to come to that conclusion. “We would do it differently if we knew what we know today,” Muilenburg said.
Several committee members pressed the CEO to make more changes in the aftermath of the crash, including giving up some of the $15 million in pay and bonus he received last year, out of $23 million in total compensation for 2018. Boeing successfully lobbied regulators to keep any explanation of the system, called MCAS, from pilot manuals and training. After the crashes, the company tried to blame the pilots, said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut. “Those pilots never had a chance,” Blumenthal said. Passengers “never had a chance. They were in flying coffins as a result of Boeing deciding that it was going to conceal MCAS from the pilots.”
Representative Albio Sires also read a worker email sent to the head of Boeing’s 737 production team in mid-2018 that claimed high production goals were straining workers and increased the potential for mistakes. “For the first time in my history with Boeing I would be hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing airplane,” wrote the veteran Boeing employee. Muilenburg said he only became aware of the worker’s concerns after the Lion Air 737 Max crash October 29. He said the 737 production line was working at a “high rate” at the time and the issues raised by the now-retired employee had been investigated and addressed. Boeing, in fact, never cut back the production of the planes, despite the concerns.