The Boeing logo hangs from an entrance to its factory in Sheffield, England, in 2018. (Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg, file)

The Boeing logo hangs from an entrance to its factory in Sheffield, England, in 2018. (Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg, file)

Boeing’s ‘very bad’ internal messages boost crash victim suits

Employees bragged about fooling the FAA about pilots needing only computer training for the new 737 Max.

By Edvard Pettersson / Bloomberg

Internal emails from Boeing employees could strengthen the legal case for families claiming the company’s push to minimize the training needed for new 737 Max aircraft contributed to two crashes that killed 346 people.

Employees bragged about fooling the Federal Aviation Administration into thinking pilots who’d flown older 737 models would need only computer training to fly the new version, emails released by the company show. Those comments support lawsuits claiming Boeing compromised safety to sell jets — and may increase its liability, said Justin Green, an attorney representing 32 families of people who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash last year.

“The lack of training is essential to our case,” Green said. “These documents show that Boeing led the FAA around by the nose and they confirm everything the families have alleged.”

Boeing is accused in the lawsuits of seeking to bring a new airplane to market as quickly as possible to compete with Airbus SE’s A320 neo. Part of the purported sales pitch was that pilots who already were qualified to fly the older 737 models wouldn’t need costly and time-consuming new training for the Max.

Both the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the Lion Air plane that went down in the Sea of Java in 2018 have been blamed on the 737 Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which caused the airplanes to dive shortly after takeoff.

Since then, all 737 Max planes were grounded, sales of Boeing jets plunged, and Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg lost his job last month. The shares tumbled, and the company faces wrongful-death lawsuits filed by victims’ families that could cost $2 billion to settle, as well as legal battles with investors, pilots and workers.

On Thursday, under pressure from lawmakers as it seeks to get the 737 Max flying again, Boeing disclosed a new trove of internal documents related to development of the aircraft. The company had turned them over to investigators for the FAA and Congress last month.

In one 2013 memo, a Boeing employee recommended describing MCAS as an addition to an existing speed trim system, instead of as a new feature: “If we emphasize MCAS is a new function there may be greater certification and training impact.”

In 2016, after the FAA had provisionally agreed that only computer-based training was needed for pilots transitioning from the 737 NG to the 737 Max, a Boeing employee said in an email: “You can be away from an NG for 30 years and still be able to jump into a Max? LOVE IT!!”

Then in June 2017, a Boeing employee referred to Lion Air officials as “idiots” for seeking more simulation training on the Max for its pilots, records show. Lion Air abandoned the idea after the planemaker convinced the airline it was unnecessary.

The new disclosures could be quite damning for Boeing and could support claims for reckless disregard for safety, which may entitle the plaintiffs to punitive damages on top of compensation for losses, said Robert Rabin, a law professor at Stanford University.

In addition, the revelations related to the FAA may put pressure on the agency to be super-cautious in allowing the 737 Max back into the air, Rabin said.

“In the court of public opinion this has to be bad for Boeing, any way you slice it,” said Timothy Ravich, an aviation law expert at the University of Central Florida. “This smells very, very bad.”

In a court of law, on the other hand, Boeing may try to keep the internal documents out of the case as either unsubstantiated rumor, known as hearsay, or as unfairly prejudicial, according to Ravich. But given that it’s unlikely that Boeing will want to go to trial with the families of the crash victims, the internal communications probably will give leverage for the plaintiff lawyers to secure a favorable settlement, Ravich said.

“Boeing has to put this to bed as soon as possible,” he said. “The 2013 MCAS memo is ample and unequivocal evidence that Boeing tried to push this airplane to market to stem the tide of Airbus orders.”

With deliveries of new Max jets halted by the crashes and orders canceled, Boeing disclosed Tuesday that it had lost the title of world’s largest planemaker. Deliveries last year tumbled to 380 jetliners, less than half the 863 tallied by rival Airbus.

Boeing declined to comment on the litigation.

“These documents do not represent the best of Boeing,” Greg Smith, who was the company’s interim CEO until David Calhoun took over this week, said in a message to employees Friday. “The tone and language of the messages are inappropriate, particularly when used in discussion of such important matters, and they do not reflect who we are as a company or the culture we’ve created.”

The company said in November it had reached settlements with more than 60 of the Lion Air lawsuits filed in Chicago, where a federal judge has signaled he may grant Boeing’s request for pending claims to be resolved in Indonesia rather than the U.S.

Aside from the lawsuits by families of crash victims, Boeing is defending against claims by pilots affected by the grounding of the airplanes.

Lawyers seeking to represent as many as 5,000 pilots in a class action already filed an amended complaint Monday in federal court in Chicago.

“One of the new causes of action that we added captures succinctly the range of deception by Boeing, which was characterized by the tone of the recently released emails, and other behavior witnessed by our clients,” Joe Wheeler, an attorney for the pilots said in an email. “What the emails indicate to me is that there are not just rotten apples at Boeing, the whole orchard is infected.”

Bloomberg’s Janan Hanna and Julie Johnsson contributed.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Funko warehouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Funko to close Everett warehouses, shift work to Arizona

The company headquarters are currently in downtown Everett, but distribution will move to a Phoenix suburb.

FILE - In this Monday, March 1, 2021 file photo, The first Alaska Airlines passenger flight on a Boeing 737-9 Max airplane takes off on a flight to San Diego from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. A Boeing pilot involved in testing the 737 Max jetliner was indicted Thursday, Oct. 14,2021 by a federal grand jury on charges of deceiving safety regulators who were evaluating the plane, which was later involved in two deadly crashes. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Alaska Airlines to add Boeing 737s to the Paine Field fleet

It’s a sign of the growing popularity of flying from Everett. So far, much smaller Embraer E175s have been the rule.

FILE - Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson talks to reporters, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, during a news conference in Seattle. In a 5-4 decision Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, the Washington Supreme Court upheld an $18 million campaign finance penalty against the Consumer Brands Association, formerly known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Ferguson sued the group in 2013, alleging that it spent $11 million to oppose a ballot initiative without registering as a political committee or disclosing the source of the money. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington justices uphold $18M fine in GMO-labeling case

Big grocers funneled dark money into a campaign against genetically modified labels on food packaging.

Mara Wiltshire, left, celebrates her first place finish in Mario Cart against her son Miles Jenkins, 7, as Calvin Jenkins, 5, looking on Friday evening at their home in Everett, Washington on January 7, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Child care’s heightened burden takes parents out of workforce

One Snohomish County mom said she couldn’t return to work “because I didn’t have child care and I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

In this photo taken May 17, 2017, wine barrels are shown at a vineyard adjacent to the Walla Walla Vintners winery in Walla Walla, Wash. The remote southeastern Washington town of Walla Walla - which used to be best known for sweet onions and as home of the state penitentiary - has now reinvented itself into a center of premium wines and wine tourism. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)
More sustainable Washington wines are on the way

Labels will indicate grape growers met guidelines in 9 areas, including water, pest and labor practices.

A sign bearing the corporate logo hangs in the window of a Starbucks open only to take-away customers in this photograph taken Monday, April 26, 2021, in southeast Denver.  Starbucks is no longer requiring its U.S. workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, reversing a policy it announced earlier this month. The Seattle coffee giant says, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022,  it's responding to last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.  (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Starbucks nixes vaccine mandate after Supreme Court ruling

The move reverses a policy the coffee company announced earlier this month.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Stanwood in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Regulators OK doubling of composting operation in Stanwood

Lenz Enterprises can now handle 150,000 tons a year. Residents worry odors will be a problem.

Christian Sayre
Everett bar owner arrested again on new sexual assault charges

Christian Sayre, longtime owner of The Anchor Pub, was charged Friday with 10 counts of felony sex offenses.

FILE - Bill Gates speaks during the Global Investment Summit at the Science Museum, London, Tuesday, Oct, 19, 2021. A small city in the top U.S. coal-mining state of Wyoming will be home to a Bill Gates-backed experimental nuclear power project near a coal-fired power plant that will soon close, officials announced Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Microsoft to review workplace harassment, including Bill Gates allegations

One engineer wrote in a letter that she had a sexual relationship with Gates over several years.

Snohomish roofing company fined another $425K for safety violations

Allways Roofing has had at least seven serious injuries on its job sites, according to the state.

ZeroAvia will collaborate with Alaska Air Group, the parent company of Alaska Airlines, to produce a hydrogen-electric powertrain capable of flying 76-seat regional De Havilland Q400 aircraft in excess of 500 nautical miles. (Alaska Airlines)
Hydrogen-powered aircraft company ZeroAvia coming to Everett

It adds to Snohomish County’s growing repertoire of firms focused on flight without petroleum.

Jack Ng, owner of China City, at his restaurant in Mill Creek on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Businesses and nonprofits plan to push through COVID in 2022

“You can’t just wait until the fog clears,” says one business owner. Here’s what he and others are planning.