It was a time of reckoning for Boeing management team led by its Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dennis Muilenburg, on Tuesday and Wednesday as the United States (U.S.) lawmakers grilled them about the deaths and lack of accountability before and after 737 MAX jets were grounded, BOLA OLAJUWON writes
IN March 2019, after two new Boeing 737 MAX passenger airliners crashed within five months, killing all 346 people aboard, aviation authorities around the world grounded the aircraft. The accidents befell Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29, last year and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019.
Last week, an Indonesian report into the Lion Air crash criticised the design of the anti-stall system that left pilots fighting for control, as well as “deficiencies” in the flight crew’s communication and manual control of the aircraft.
The decision to rest the aircraft is estimated to have cost Boeing as much as $9 billion. United States (U.S.) lawmakers, during the week, kick-started a series of hearings about issues leading to the accidents during the week.
Rendering an apology
Muilenburg, who was forced to step down as Boeing chairman earlier this month after emails suggesting Boeing test pilots knew about defects in an anti-stall system in the aircraft, but failed to alert regulators, opened his testimony with an apology to the family members of crash victims.
“We are sorry, truly and deeply sorry. As a husband and father, I am heartbroken by your losses,” Muilenburg told the family members at the hearing.
He was appearing at the first of a series of congressional committee hearings. Tuesday’s hearing occurred on the first anniversary of the Lion Air flight 610 crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people.
The aircraft manufacturing chief executive admitted that the aeroplane manufacturer got things wrong in the development of the 737 MAX airliner and deserved the scrutiny it is receiving.
Muilenburg told the Senate committee that the company had learned and is still learning from two crashes of 737 MAX airliners and a worldwide grounding of the aeroplane.
“We know we made mistakes and got some things wrong. We own that, and we are fixing them,” Muilenburg said, according to a transcript of his testimony discovered by The Nation.
Muilenburg told the committee that Boeing had developed improvements to the 737 MAX “to ensure that accidents like these never happen again” and is learning deeper lessons that will result in improvement in the design of future aeroplanes.
He also admitted that airlines that buy Boeing planes and their pilots have told the company that it didn’t communicate enough about MCAS software system “and we’ve heard them”.
He pledged that when the 737 Max is returned to service, “it will be one of the safest aeroplanes ever to fly”.
But, the lawmakers who were not taking in by Muilenburg’s apology over the failure of the aircraft maker and US regulators to identify and correct flaws in the design of the 737 Max jet that led to two crashes, bored their fangs
He was subjected to withering questioning from the politicians from both sides of the political aisle.
The lawmakers accused Boeing of putting profits over safety and developing a cosy relationship with regulators that permitted the company to rush the 737 Max, Boeing’s most profitable model, into service.
“Both of these accidents were entirely avoidable,” the Mississippi senator Roger Wicker, a Republican, said. “We cannot fathom the pain experienced by the families of those 346 souls who were lost,” he added.
On Wednesday, Muilenburg’s salary became the subject of the second day of the Congressional hearings.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., questioned in a heated exchange whether Muilenburg was taking responsibility for the fallout from the crashes, which killed 346 people in total. Cohen asked if anyone at the company had taken a pay cut amid the grounding of the 737 Max.
“You’re saying you’re not giving up any compensation at all,” Cohen asked Muilenburg. “You’re continuing to work and make $30 million a year after this horrific two accidents that caused all these people’s relatives to go, to disappear, to die,” the lawmaker said.
Muilenburg earned total compensation of just under $23.4 million for 2018, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. He also cashed in delayed stock payouts from previous years, bringing his total actual compensation for the year to $30 million.
When Muilenburg was asked directly if he would take a cut in pay, he said the company’s board makes those decisions.
“You’re not accountable then,” Cohen said. “You’re saying the board’s accountable,” the lawmaker added.
Boeing replaced the head of its commercial aeroplane unit Kevin McAllister earlier this month. He is the most senior executive to leave in the wake of the catastrophes.
Muilenburg said during the questioning on Wednesday by members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that he has not offered to resign following the 737 Max crashes.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who chairs the committee, also challenged Muilenburg on his compensation and the consequences he has faced after the two crashes.
“You are the CEO of the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world. You’re earning a heck of a lot of money, and so far the consequence to you has been, oh, you’re not the chairman of the board anymore,” DeFazio said.
At the hearing, the Connecticut Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal 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”.
At issue are recently disclosed internal instant messages that Boeing had not previously handed to committee investigators. The messages, sent by Boeing’s chief test pilot Mark Forkner in 2016, complained of “egregious” erratic behaviour in flight simulator tests of the MCAS system and referred to “Jedi mind tricks” to persuade regulators to approve the plane.
Muilenburg claimed he was not fully briefed on the details of the messages until a “couple of weeks ago” despite the company knowing of the exchange before the Ethiopian airlines crash.
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz called the test pilot’s exchange “shocking” and accused Boeing of withholding knowledge of the faults of the system from regulators.
Cruz said: “How come your team didn’t come to you with their hair on fire, saying: ‘We’ve got a real problem here’? What does that say about Boeing? Why did you not act before 346 people died?”
The lawmakers accused Boeing of selling safety as an “add-on feature”, referring to a warning light that advises pilots of any discrepancy in the aircraft’s pitch, which was sold as an add-on rather than included as standard.
“If you want to be the leader in aviation manufacturing you have to be the leader in safety,” offered the Washington senator Maria Cantwell, the committee’s top Democrat.
The committee has said it plans to change the programme that gave Boeing, rather than regulators, the authority to sign off on aspects of the jet.
“We don’t ‘sell’ safety, that’s not our business model,” Muilenburg claimed under questioning. “We have learned that we’ve made mistakes, and there are things we can improve. We take responsibility for that, we own that, we’ve made fixes going forward.”
As the first Boeing official to testify on Capitol Hill about the crisis engulfing the company, Muilenburg said since the 737 Max was grounded, the company has conducted extensive testing with updated software.
Asked if Boeing could have done more after the first 737 Max crash, Muilenburg said: “I think about that decision over and over again. If we knew then what we know now we would have made a different decision.”
The Democratic Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, a former military pilot, questioned why Boeing did not disclose more details about anti-stall system’s lack of safeguards.
“You have told me half-truths over and over again,” Duckworth said. “You have not told us the whole truth and these families are suffering because of it.”
Duckworth said the pilots did not know enough about the anti-stall system. “You set those pilots up for failure,” she said.
Endless waiting for the jet to fly again
Several other inquiries are also expected soon, including an international panel convened by the Federal Aviation Authority, the U.S. regulator, to recommend changes to the way planes are certified. There is also a looming criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. It is, therefore, unclear when global authorities will allow the jet to return to the skies and U.S. airlines do not expect it to fly before 2020.
The grounding has weighed on the company’s profits. The company also has seen the departure of the top executive at its commercial plane unit.