When it comes to his own role in Boeing Co.’s 737 Max crisis, CEO Dennis Muilenburg had no good answers.
The Boeing leader appeared in front of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, exactly one year after a Lion Air-operated Max plunged into the Java Sea as pilots struggled to gain control over a flight-software system unique to that version of Boeing’s bestselling 737 model. Muilenburg acknowledged that Boeing made “mistakes” and was visibly emotional when the families and friends of the 189 Lion Air victims were asked to stand and hold up pictures of those who died in the accident. Pressed repeatedly on why Boeing allowed the body count to grow by another 157 people in the Ethiopian Airlines crash five months later before grounding the plane, Muilenburg said he thinks “about that decision over and over every day” and that “if we knew everything then that we know now, we would have made a different decision.”
The problem is, Muilenburg could have – and should have – known more. Under questioning from Congress, Muilenburg acknowledged that he didn’t fully read until recently the bombshell instant messages among Boeing test pilots that appear to reveal internal concern over the flight-software system implicated in the Max crashes way back in 2016. He became aware of the messages and other emails that have raised eyebrows “over the last couple of weeks when it became public news.” Muilenburg said he was generally aware that documents of this nature had been identified in response to investigations into the Lion Air accident and turned over before the second crash. He said he relied on his counsel to provide that information to the appropriate authorities, which notably in this case didn’t appear to include the Federal Aviation Administration, nor the Transportation Department, nor any of the relevant congressional committees until a few weeks ago.
“How in the hell did nobody bring this to your attention?” asked Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in a particularly aggressive exchange. “How did your team not put it in front of you and run in with their hair on fire, saying ‘We’ve got a real problem here?’” And he’s absolutely right. While Boeing has pointed to comments from the lawyer of one of the pilots involved in the exchange that signal the concern was over a flight simulator rather than the software itself, the fact that the CEO of the company can’t say for sure a full year after the first crash is inexplicable.
That pilot, Mark Forkner, now works for Southwest Airlines Co.; the other, Patrik Gustavsson, still works for Boeing. Asked if he personally had talked with Gustavsson, Muilenburg said he had not. Asked if he personally had read every page of the documents turned over to investigators, Muilenburg said that he can’t say that he has. Granted there are half a million documents involved here, but you would think a CEO of company facing one of the worst crises in its history would take the time to know every last detail personally.
It was also surprising that Muilenburg didn’t come armed with more specific recommendations for how to improve the process by which the FAA delegates some of the certification work on new aircraft to company employees. This was bound to be a topic of intense focus by Congress — which also bears responsibility for handing ever more authority over to Boeing, by the way. While Muilenburg conceded a need to “get the balance right” in Boeing’s relationship with the FAA and a willingness to “take a hard look” at improvements, he continued to insist that relying on the technical expertise of company employees makes planes safer and he wouldn’t commit to any specific changes. In light of a recent New York Times investigation into Boeing’s efforts to lobby for even more control over the regulatory review process under the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, it’s not a good look.
“Accountability starts with me,” Muilenburg said. He’s already been stripped of his chairman title, and at the testimony on Wednesday, he didn’t sound like a CEO, at least not a hands-on one. – Bloomberg