Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg admitted to Congress on Tuesday that his company made mistakes with the design of its 737 MAX jet and deserves the scrutiny it is receiving after two fatal crashes.
“In the months since the accidents, there has been much criticism of Boeing and its culture. We understand and deserve this scrutiny,” he told the Senate Commerce Committee.
The appearance comes on the first anniversary of the first crash. Seated behind him at the hearing were family members of victims from the crashes, which killed a combined 346 people – a Lion Air plane last October and an Ethiopian Airlines jet in March.
Muilenburg apologized to the family members, and told them, “We made mistakes and we got some things wrong.”
Investigators and the company have linked the crashes to a flawed stabilization system that repeatedly pushed the planes’ noses down and overwhelmed the pilots.
Senators pressed Muilenburg on how Boeing allowed the faulty design, which was based on a single sensor with no redundancy, to market, and concerns the company and Federal Aviation Administration have an inappropriately close relationship.
‘I would walk before I would get on a 737 MAX’
“We cannot have a race for commercial airplanes become a race to the bottom when it comes to safety,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, the committee’s top Democrat, said.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said the company “shouldn’t be cutting corners,” and said, “I would walk before I would get on a 737 MAX.”
And Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, told him, “The buck stops with you.”
Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, pressed Muilenburg on why the company only recently provided investigators with internal emails and instant messages that raised concerns about “the level of coziness” between the FAA and Boeing.
Muilenburg said he was aware some of the messages existed prior to the second crash, but did not provide a direct answer as to why the messages were not disclosed. He said the company has provided investigators with more than a half-million documents.
Pilots said after the Lion Air crash that they were unaware the faulty system, called MCAS, existed. Internal documents show the company received permission from regulators to remove mention of the system from the MAX manual.
Muilenburg said Tuesday he believed that “more information in the manuals is not necessarily safer.” Manuals are designed with checklists to help pilots respond to malfunctions, rather than diagnose which system was failing, he explained. He said he believed the company’s program for pilot training was adequate.
The company is also open to modifying the process that allows some Boeing employees to act on behalf of the FAA and certify that airplane systems meet requirements, he said.
On his way into the hearing, Muilenburg told reporters he understands the view of some victims’ family members that he should resign from his post, but was not involved in any such conversations. The company’s board has already stripped him of his chairmanship title.
As he left the hearing after more than two hours of testimony, the mother of a Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 victim called out to him.
“Mr. Mulienberg, when you say you’re sorry will you turn and look at us?” asked Nadia Milleron, mother of 24-year-old Samya Rose Stumo.
He stopped, turned towards her, nodded several times, and said quietly, “I’m sorry.” He is scheduled to meet with Milleron and other family members of victims on Tuesday afternoon, according to a spokeswoman for the families.
Indonesian investigators on Friday released their final report on the first 737 MAX crash, with sharp criticism of Boeing and the FAA.
That report concluded pilots were overwhelmed with different cockpit alarms, and the US National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended regulators conduct further study of these circumstances.
“When pilots are faced with multiple alerts, they’re not performing or reacting in the way that Boeing thought that they would react,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt testified on Tuesday.
Several other investigations are also expected to report soon, and there is the looming criminal investigation by the US Justice Department.
Boeing continues to say it hopes the plane is cleared for flight before the end of the year, while the grounding weighs heavily on its bottom line. Muilenburg said the work is “in the final stages” and he believes the plane will be re-approved for commercial flight in the “next weeks and months.”
Muilenburg is scheduled to testify before the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday.