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Boeing chief at Senate 737 Max hearing: ‘We made mistakes’

Senators question whether Boeing held back key information and whether its culture contributed to unsafe aircraft

Nadia Milleron, whose daughter Samya Stumo was killed in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, holds a sign with victims of the crash Tuesday behind Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, foreground, during the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on aviation safety and the future of the Boeing 737 MAX. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Nadia Milleron, whose daughter Samya Stumo was killed in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, holds a sign with victims of the crash Tuesday behind Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, foreground, during the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on aviation safety and the future of the Boeing 737 MAX. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As he prepares for Wednesday’s oversight hearing with the embattled Boeing CEO, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio must sort through a corporate culture that he believes compromised safety and find out what, if any, legislative remedies there are to be had.

The crash of two Boeing 737 Max aircraft over the past year — Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March — took the lives of 346 people and profoundly wounded the reputation and bottom line for the Chicago-based aircraft maker. The aircraft has been grounded in the U.S. since March.

[Boeing 737 Max grounded following international accidents, downs U.S. export numbers]

Now Oregon Democrat DeFazio, 72, a blunt-talking former wrestler who has spent the bulk of his 32-year congressional career working on transportation issues, will have his first opportunity to grill Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg since those accidents.

On Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the crash of Lion Air crash, Muilenburg sat for withering criticism from members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. It was the CEO’s first appearance before Congress since the crashes and he was accompanied by John Hamilton, the company’s vice president and chief engineer.

DeFazio, who requested Muilenburg testify in June, has publicly scrapped with the FAA over document releases and expressed dismay over a series of 2016 texts and emails that Boeing recently released revealing the company’s 737 Max test pilot’s concerns about the aircraft’s performance in a simulator.

The Senate hearing had an additional panel: Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and Christopher Hart, chairman of the Joint Authorities Technical Review, an international panel comprised of civil aviation regulatory authorities that released a scathing 71-page technical review of the Boeing 737 Max flight control system, called MCAS, on Oct. 11.

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With people who lost loved ones in the crash sitting stoically in a row behind him, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg apologized to the survivors, telling them “I think about you and your loved ones every day,” and vowing to do better.

“We’ve been challenged and changed by these accidents,” he said. “We’ve made mistakes and we’ve got some things wrong. We’re improving and we’re learning and we’re continuing to learn.”

Boeing, he said, has responded with “robust software improvements” that will, among other things, ensure the MCAS system is not activated based on signals from a single sensor, as it was believed to have done in both accidents.

“When the 737 Max returns to service, it will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly,” he said.

Profits take a hit

For Boeing, the stakes are high: The company has assured investors it is working to return the aircraft to the skies as soon as this year, and a setback could be devastating to a company that reported a 51 percent decrease in third-quarter profit.

What’s less calculable is the degree to which the company’s reputation will be damaged and whether airlines, driven by passenger anxiety, will curtail orders for the Max when it returns to flight.

But the House committee’s focus will be on the concrete: whether production pressures contributed to the aircraft’s safety issues; whether the company concealed critical information from regulators; and whether the FAA’s oversight process has gaps that allowed crucial flaws to go undetected.

Among key concerns: an FAA certification process called Organization Designation Authority, which has been used in some capacity since 1927, which allows the FAA to delegate part of its certification authority to “private people employed by aircraft manufacturers,” according to the FAA website.

The process was traditionally aimed at certifying non-safety related items, such as where signs were placed or the color of the cabin, but DeFazio said he believes there’s been a “creep” over time that has allowed Boeing to oversee the certification of safety aspects of new aircraft.

“That’s a key part of our investigation,” DeFazio said.

Friendly regulator

He also says he’s concerned about a chumminess that he read in the emails between the Boeing test pilot, Mark Forkner, and FAA officials about the aircraft.

Forkner, now at Southwest, had sociable exchanges with FAA officials who were supposed to be approving the aircraft “on an impartial basis,” DeFazio said — emails that also included Forkner repeatedly urging the FAA officials to remove references to a new flight control system called MCAS from the flight manual. That system is believed to have contributed to both crashes. In another email to regulators, Forkner compared the 737 Max certification process to “jedi-mind” tricks. He jokes with one FAA employee that he’s been trying to get the aircraft certified with regulators all over the world.

“You know me, I usually get what I want!” he said.

“Is this an arms-length regulator?” DeFazio asked. “We need to get to that. They are supposed to be an arms-length regulator in part for something that’s safety critical.”

Still, he said of Forkner, “I don’t believe he was a lone wolf. I don’t. I think it’s cultural.”

DeFazio said a series of texts from Forkner also alluded to pressure on Boeing to get the aircraft approved.

“Ultimately a lot of fingers point back at Wall Street stock pressure, market pressure. CEO and board salaries are linked to stock prices and deadlines,” he said. “Those are things that need to be exposed. And we’re going to do that as best as possible.”

But those issues are more cultural than legislative, and DeFazio acknowledges that it’s hard to legislate a culture.

Instead, he said, Congress needs to force the FAA to conduct more stringent oversight. He is concerned that the FAA has too few resources to do that. The recent Joint Authorities Technical Review report on the company found 45 FAA inspectors oversaw 1,200 Boeing employees.

“Think about that,” DeFazio said. “You’re in a supervisory role, there are 27 people you’re overseeing, looking over their shoulder, making sure they’re doing right.”

He said the agency has been under-resourced since Elizabeth Dole was Transportation Secretary during the Reagan Administration. At the same time, the aircraft industry has become infinitely more sophisticated and more dispersed, with more than 700 foreign repair facilities abroad, many, according to a 2013 DOT Inspector General report, lacking the FAA oversight “needed to identify deficiencies and verify that they have been addressed.”

DeFazio said he doesn’t know what the legislative solution will be but said he’s hopeful Wednesday’s hearing will help bring clarity and a “microscopic” level of oversight to the company.

“In the end, we have to fix the law,” he said. “The law didn’t work.”

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