Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg acknowledged the company made mistakes in the development of a key safety system at the centre of two fatal 737 Max 8 crashes, and was hammered over his compensation at a U.S. House hearing on Wednesday.
Muilenburg acknowledged “we made some mistakes” on the development of Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an anti-stall system that automatically pushed the plane’s nose down, leaving pilots fighting for control.
Lawmakers released Boeing documents that showed the company had considered adding an MCAS alert on the flight control panel to the 737 Max. Another Boeing document warned that if a pilot failed to respond in more than 10 seconds to the software, activation could lead to a “catastrophic” failure.
U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, who heads the House’s transportation and infrastructure committee holding the hearing, pressed Muilenburg on why the company had not required data from crucial airflow sensors known as attack sensors when it originally designed the airplane. Muilenburg said the company had repeatedly asked the same question.
The hearing, the highest-profile congressional scrutiny of commercial aviation safety in years, heaps pressure on a newly rejiggered Boeing senior management team fighting to repair trust with airline customers and passengers shaken by an eight-month safety ban on its 737 Max following two crashes that killed 346 people near Indonesia and in Ethiopia.
The March crash in Ethiopia killed 18 Canadians.
Muilenburg met with some family members of the victims before Wednesday’s hearing.
“It was tough to hear,” he said, adding the company was making “the fixes we need to make.”
Toronto native Paul Njoroge, among a group of relatives of crash victims who met with Muilenberg on Tuesday, said he believes the executive is sincerely regretful, given that Boeing didn’t act between the first and second crashes.
“He’s a husband and he’s a father,” Njoroge told CBC News. “I’ve always wonder after the crash of Lion Air … I’ve always wondered why he didn’t put himself in the shoes of the 189 victims, and many times I feel even though he has that human side in himself, I think most of these people just see all this in the lens of how much money their company is making.”
Njoroge’s wife, three children and mother-in-law died in the Ethiopia crash.
Going forward, Njoroge said, “I hope [Muilenberg] can lead with that and be thinking of the families of the victims.
When discussing conversations with family members during the hearing, Muilenburg repeatedly shifted in his chair and slowed his speech.
“We talked about our commitment to never letting this happen again. Preventing any future accidents like this. One thing I wanted to convey to the families. These stories, they are always going to be with us. I wish we could change that.”
Muilenburg told the House panel he has not offered to resign or submitted a resignation letter in the wake of the two devastating crashes.
“I am responsible. These two accidents happened on my watch. I feel responsible to see this through,” said Muilenburg, who was stripped of his title as board chairman earlier this month, also rebuffed suggestions that he take a pay cut after he received $23 million US in compensation last year, saying his focus was “not on the money.”
At a separate point, Democrat Dan Lipinski of Illinois, where Boeing is headquartered, told Muilenburg: “I am not sure what accountability means if you got a $15 million US bonus after Lion Air,” a reference to the crash in Indonesia.
The compensation theme was also picked up by Democrat Steve Cohen of Tennessee.
“So you are saying you are not giving up any compensation at all? You are continuing to work and make $30 million dollars a year after the horrific two accidents that caused all of these people’s relatives to go, to disappear, to die?” asked Cohe.
“Congressman, again, our board will make those determinations,” Muilenburg said.
“You’re not accountable? You’re saying the board’s accountable?” Cohen said.
“Mr. Congressman, I am accountable sir,” Muilenburg said.
‘I’ve talked to a lot of pissed-off pilots’
DeFazio also questioned why Boeing scrapped initial plans to install an MCAS “annunciator” alert, and how pilots could be expected to recover if the system failed when Boeing failed to disclose details on the MCAS system to pilots.
“I’ve talked to a lot of pissed-off pilots,” DeFazio said.
“We need answers. We need reforms on how commercial aircraft are certified,” and how manufacturers like Boeing “are watched” by regulators, he added.
At one point in the hearing, Democrat Rick Larsen of Washington state, where Boeing builds the 737, asked Muilenburg to name three mistakes the company made.
Muilenburg quickly listed Boeing’s failure to disclose for months that it had made optional a cockpit alert flagging disagreement between the airflow sensors. “We got that wrong,” he said.
Muilenburg also said, “clearly, we had some areas to improve” regarding MCAS. And finally he said the company should have been more “efficient and comprehensive” in its communications and documentation “across all of our shareholders.”
But Muilenburg deflected a follow-up question on whether he could name specific individuals who were to blame for these mistakes, noting that larger “teams” were responsible for each of these areas.
In an earlier statement, DeFazio said the panel was aware of “at least one case where a Boeing manager implored the then-vice president and general manager of the 737 program to shut down the 737 Max production line because of safety concerns.”
Muilenburg told reporters on Wednesday he believes the allegation was in response to concerns about a change in the increase of the production rate. He said Boeing was aware of those concerns and had acknowledged them.
On Tuesday, U.S. senators expressed dismay that 2016 instant messages discussing erratic behaviour of simulator software — a replica of the system aboard the jetliner — did not prompt an immediate reaction from the company.