'Flying coffins': senators rip Boeing chief over Max jet crashes that killed 346

Under-fire Dennis Muilenburg subjected to withering questions from angry committee members about flaws in anti-stall system

Boeing’s chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, faced the anger of members of Congress in Washington 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, killing 346.

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 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,” Muilenburg said. “As a husband and father, I am heartbroken by your losses.”

Muilenberg was appearing at the first of a series of congressional committee hearings. Tuesday’s occurred on the first anniversary of the Lion Air flight 610 crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people. In March, after an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max crashed, killing 157 people, the 737 Max was grounded worldwide, and Muilenburg pledged such accidents would not happen again.

But he was subjected to withering questioning from US politicians from both sides of the political aisle, in the first of several planned hearings and further investigations into Boeing’s conduct over the top-selling jet.

Boeing was accused 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.”

Last week, an Indonesian report into the Lion Air crash criticized 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 Ethiopian Airlines crash led to the grounding of the aircraft. That decision is estimated to have cost Boeing as much as $9bn.

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 behavior 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.

The Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz called the test pilot’s exchange “shocking” and accused Boeing of withholding knowledge of the systems faults 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?”

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 program that gave Boeing, rather than regulators, 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 that since the 737 Max was grounded, the company has conducted extensive testing with updated software.

Several other inquiries are also expected to report soon, including an international panel convened by the Federal Aviation Authority, the US regulator, to recommend changes to the way planes are certified. There is also a looming criminal investigation by the US justice department.

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.

Reuters contributed to this report


Edward Helmore in New York

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Profit over safety? Boeing under fire over 737 Max crashes as families demand answers
Relatives are demanding clarity and believe they should be consulted on when or if the 737 Max flies again

Edward Helmore in New York

17, Jun, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Boeing: internal emails reveal chaos and incompetence at 737 Max factory
Executives mocked their regulator and joked about safety in hundreds of messages given to congressional investigators

Dominic Rushe in New York

10, Jan, 2020 @3:57 PM

Article image
Man whose family died in 737 Max crash accuses Boeing of ‘utter disrespect’
Paul Njoroge warned at congressional hearing there will be more deaths unless action is taken

Dominic Rushe in New York

17, Jul, 2019 @3:50 PM

Article image
FAA let Boeing 737 Max continue to fly even as review found serious crash risk
Analysis from US regulators found plane could have averaged a fatal crash about every two to three years without design changes

Dominic Rushe in New York

11, Dec, 2019 @4:30 PM

Article image
Pilots confronted Boeing with 737 Max fears after first fatal crash, audio reveals
Boeing appeared to play down concerns of second disaster weeks after Lion Air Max crashed and four months before Ethiopian Airlines plane went down

Dominic Rushe in New York

15, May, 2019 @4:44 PM

Article image
Senate panel to hold aviation safety hearing after two Boeing 737 Max crashes
Panel plans to call Boeing and other aviation manufacturers to testify following fatal Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes

Guardian staff and agencies

20, Mar, 2019 @9:29 PM

Article image
Boeing employee raised concern over Max sensor three years before crashes, email shows
Lawmakers have assailed CEO Dennis Muilenburg over failure to prioritize safety, in second day of congressional hearings

Edward Helmore

30, Oct, 2019 @9:44 PM

Article image
American Airlines union: blaming pilots for Boeing 737 Max crashes 'inexcusable'
Allied Pilots Association says jetmaker’s anti-stall software forced plane into such an aggressive dive pilots could not recover

Edward Helmore in New York

23, May, 2019 @3:40 PM

Article image
737 Max scandal: the internal Boeing messages and emails
Excerpts of exchanges between staff discussing flaws and substandard work on the project‘Designed by clowns’

Mark Sweney and Gwyn Topham

10, Jan, 2020 @5:13 PM

Article image
Boeing reports lowest order numbers in 30 years following 737 Max catastrophes
Company reported 87 more cancellations than new purchases in 2019, after two crashes led to worldwide 737 grounding

Edward Helmore in New York

14, Jan, 2020 @5:01 PM