Boeing Company President and Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg (right) watches as family members hold up photographs of those killed in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610 crashes during a Senate Transportation Committee hearing on Boeing’s 737 Max on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Boeing Company President and Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg (right) watches as family members hold up photographs of those killed in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610 crashes during a Senate Transportation Committee hearing on Boeing’s 737 Max on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Senators grill Boeing CEO over 737 crashes and FAA oversight

“We have to get the balance right,” Dennis Muilenburg said of Boeing and government regulators.

By Ian Duncan, Michael Laris and Lori Aratani / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg came under intense grilling at the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday, his first public questioning by Congress since Lion Air flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea exactly one year ago.

Muilenburg told Senators he was open to reassessing how much responsibility his company takes on for guaranteeing that its new planes are safe as he testified about two deadly crashes involving the Renton-built 737 Max. But he would not pledge his company’s support for a stricter law.

“We have to get the balance right,” Muilenburg said. “It’s very important we have strong government oversight, strong FAA oversight.”

Lawmakers have said they are weighing changes to aviation safety laws in the wake of the crashes. Investigators have focused in particular on a legal setup that allows Boeing and other manufacturers to take on much of the work of certifying that aircraft are safe. A second day of hearings before a House committee is set for Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Boeing misled his office after the crashes, blaming them on pilot error. In reality, Blumenthal said: “Those pilots never had a chance.”

Blumenthal asked Muilenburg to commit to supporting efforts to change the safety certification system, but Muilenburg committed only to participating in efforts. He denied it was the company’s position to blame the pilots.

“We are responsible for our airplanes,” Muilenburg said.

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., trained early criticism on both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration. Wicker pointed to recently released correspondence between the manufacturer and regulator, saying it reflected “a disturbing level of casualness and flippancy” that seemed to corroborate criticisms of an “inappropriately close relationship” between Boeing and the FAA.

In one of the emails, Boeing’s former chief 737 technical pilot, Mark Forkner, said he would be “jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by FAA etc.,” a reference to the company’s successful campaign to minimize training for pilots who would be flying the Max.

Pressed by Wicker on when Muilenburg learned of that email, the CEO said he had been informed of the details “just recently,” as they were being reported publicly.

“I don’t recall being briefed on the documents any time prior to that,” Muilenburg said. “The comments, the values, the approaches that are described in those emails, are counter to our values.”

Muilenburg said the company had made mistakes, and he expressed deep remorse. “As a husband and father, I am heartbroken by your losses,” he told survivors of those killed in Indonesia and in Ethiopia under similar circumstances within five months. The family members, sitting three rows back from Muilenburg, at one point held up photographs of their lost husbands, wives and children.

Shortly after the Lion Air flight took off, the captain and first officer began to struggle with the controls as a new automated feature on the Max received erroneous sensor data and repeatedly forced the nose down. The crash killed 189 people.

Information about the feature — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS — had been kept out of the Flight Crew Operating Manual on Boeing’s assumption that it would only rarely kick in.

“Delete MCAS,” Forkner wrote to an FAA official in 2017 as the plane’s five-year certification was nearing the finish line.

The deletion served Boeing’s commercial interest at the time, which was to minimize the regulations it had to follow and the amount of costly training required of its customers.

Less than five months after the Indonesian tragedy, an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed in similar circumstances, killing another 157 people.

Soon after that crash regulators worldwide moved to ground the Max.

The crashes have been a major crisis for Boeing. The grounding of the Max, a more fuel-efficient version of the popular 737, has hurt the company’s finances and stock price and shaken public confidence.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Army helicopter pilot, challenged Muilenburg’s assertion that the development of MCAS followed industry standards. She said the feature was designed in such a way that it worked against pilots’ training to pull back on their controls when the nose of their plane dips.

“You’ve not been telling the committee the whole truth,” she said.

Muilenburg pushed back against criticism from senators about the safety certification process used for planes in the United States, which includes a convoluted structure known as Organization Designation Authorization (ODA).

Under that system, the FAA gives manufacturers such as Boeing the job of finding whether the company has met minimum FAA safety standards for airplanes. But U.S. and foreign safety experts convened by the FAA said in a report earlier this month that the FAA does not receive the information it needs to make many crucial judgments about safety.

Critics inside and outside government have said the arrangement is too cozy, is not technically rigorous enough and is set to get worse after Congress voted last year to broaden the oversight powers the FAA gives to Boeing and other companies.

Muilenburg said he thought strong government oversight, combined with the deep technical knowledge Boeing provides as part of the ODA structure, had made flying safer than ever before.

“We have to get the balance right,” Muilenburg said. “If we need to rebalance, I support a look at that.”

Later, when asked by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., whether the certification process should revert to the FAA, Muilenburg emphasized the need for collaboration.

“We are open to improving it. But the idea that we can tap the deep technical expertise of our companies across the aerospace industry is a valuable part of the certification process,” Muilenburg said.

Tester said he remained unconvinced by the company’s pledges.

“Boeing has had an incredibly valuable name, but I’ve got to tell you, I would walk before I was to get on a 737 Max,” Tester said. “I would walk. There’s no way. The question becomes when issues like this happen, it costs your company huge. And so you shouldn’t be cutting corners, and I see corners being cut, and this committee’s got to do something to stop that from happening.”

“My sense is that we all have the same objective here. We all want the safest industry possible,” Muilenburg said. “There are refinements that can be worthy,” he added, without specifying. “We will work with you and examining any improvements we can make.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Muilenburg his testimony was “quite dismaying.”

Over a tense, 56-second stretch, Cruz read, word for word, the heart of an instant message exchange between Forkner and another technical pilot that raised concerns — in 2016 — about the performance of MCAS.

Muilenburg sat silent at the hearing table.

“Mr. Forkner: ‘Oh shocker alert!’” Cruz read, continuing with Forkner saying MCAS is “running rampant in the sim on me.”

Cruz quoted technical pilot Patrik Gustavsson responding that updates would be needed in documentation given the circumstances.

“Mr. Forkner, ‘So basically I lied to the regulators (unknowingly),’” Cruz read.

“Gustavsson: ‘It wasn’t a lie, no one told us that was the case’”

Cruz continued, quoting Forkner saying MCAS was engaging “like crazy.”

“Forkner: ‘Granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious.’”

Cruz stopped, then declared: “That exchange describes what happened in Lion Air and Ethiopian Air.”

He tried to pin down Muilenburg on what he knew about the exchange and when; how it was handled internally; and why it was not given to the senate committee or the FAA months ago.

“Mr. Muilenburg, how in the hell did nobody bring this to your attention in February” when Boeing provided it to the Justice Department. “How did you just read this a couple weeks ago?” Cruz asked.

“I was made aware of the existence of this kind of document, this issue, as part of that discovery process in the investigation, early in the year, as you pointed out. At that point, I counted on my counsel to handle that appropriately,” Muilenburg said.

Cruz pushed again, though with little success.

“Did you read this exchange? ‘I was made aware documents were being produced’ — that is passive voice, and disclaiming responsibility. You’re the CEO, the buck stops with you. Did you read this document?” Cruz asked.

“Senator, as you mentioned, I didn’t see the details of this exchange until recently. We’re not quite sure what Mr. Forkner meant by that exchange. His lawyer has suggested he was talking about a simulator that was in development in that time frame, that could be the case,” Muilenburg said.

Cruz asked if Muilenburg had spoken with Gustavsson, who has since been promoted to be Boeing’s chief 737 technical pilot, about the exchange.

“Have you had that conversation with him?” Cruz asked.

“Senator, my team has talked with Patrick as well,” Muilenburg said.

“Have you had that conversation?”

“Senator, I have not.”

On Monday, the chairmen of the House and Senate committees holding this week’s hearings both said they expect Congress to consider changing aviation safety laws. But exactly what such a change might look like remains unclear.

In the months since the Ethiopian crash, Boeing has been working on fixes to the automated feature, stopping it from turning on several times in a row and requiring it to read data from two sensors as a fail safe. The FAA has been reviewing that work as it determines when to allow the plane to fly again.

At the same time, investigators for the Justice Department, international aviation regulators and lawyers for the victims’ families have been examining how Boeing designed the Max and the FAA’s role in approving it as safe.

Investigations have found that the FAA received fragmented information about the automated feature, which meant it did not get close-enough scrutiny.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is hosting Muilenburg on Wednesday, is conducting its own investigation into the crashes and has amassed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents.

On the eve of Tuesday’s Senate hearing, more than a dozen family members of victims from the Ethiopian Airlines crash met privately with FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell and continued to press for the Boeing jets to remain grounded until significant changes are made to the certification process. The families also are scheduled to meet with Boeing executives following Wednesday’s hearing.

“We are most concerned that this plane is going to be ungrounded without changes to the [FAA’s certification] process,” said Michael Stumo, whose 24-year-old daughter, Samya Stumo, died in the March crash of Flight 302.

In a letter sent last week to the head of the FAA and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the families demanded the agency revoke Boeing’s authority under the safety certification program.

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