WASHINGTON (CN) — One year to the day since Lion Air Flight 610 crashed off the coast of Indonesia and killed all 189 people on board, Boeing’s CEO faced angry questions from Congress on Tuesday over the company’s failure to safely certify its top-selling 737 Max jets.
The 737 Max 8 aircraft’s new flight-control software triggered a single sensor to command the aircraft to nose-down into a dive without the pilot’s input.
The plane was grounded worldwide in March after a second crash, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, killed all 157 people aboard. It is unclear when the aircraft will fly again.
More than a dozen relatives of passengers who died in the crashes attended Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., invited them to stand to raise photos of their loved ones after Capitol Police, following procedure, initially instructed them to keep the posters down.
Senators were in bipartisan agreement that Boeing pushed the aircraft off the runway without guaranteeing proper certification, putting costs over safety.
Boeing President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the company took responsibility for the crashes but failed to answer many of the questions from lawmakers on the committee.
“We have learned from both accidents and we have identified changes that need to be made to MCAS,” Muilenburg said, referring to the flight-control software known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System.
Asked by Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., if he was aware of the defects in the MCAS system, Muilenburg said Boeing assessed the hazard level for the 737 Max 8.
“Which now do you think is wrong?” Cantwell said.
“In hindsight, senator, yes,” Muilenburg said.
Many lawmakers drilled the top executive on whether he knew Boeing officials had purposefully left out information on the MCAS system in the 737 Max pilot training manual.
An email Boeing recently handed over to the Federal Aviation Administration from a top Boeing executive refers to “Jedi-mind tricking” the pilots.
Muilenburg said he only became aware of the email in recent weeks.
“I just want to convey that it is not consistent with the values of our company at all,” he added.
But Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the pilots never had a chance.
“They were in flying coffins as a result of Boeing deciding that it was going to conceal MCAS from the pilots,” Blumenthal said.
Republican and Democrats agreed the FAA practice of delegating steps in the certification process to Boeing technical experts compromised safety. Many looked to Muilenberg to back legislation to remove Boeing in-house experts from the certification process. He dodged the invitation repeatedly.
“We are open to improving it but the idea that we can tap the deep technical expertise for our companies across the aerospace industry is a valuable part of the certification process,” he said.
Wicker said other communications between Boeing and FAA officials turned over to investigators reflected a “disturbing level of casualness and flippancy.”
Other lawmakers characterized the relationship as too cozy.
Muilenburg rejected the accusations, and repeatedly emphasized the value of safety at Boeing.
Cantwell said Muilenburg had a responsibility to the families of the victims as well as millions of passengers and 150,000 Boeing employees to fix what went wrong with the 737 Max 8.
“For the 346 people who trusted Boeing without a second thought, we need to get this right,” the panel’s ranking Democrat said.
But Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Boeing is already marked as a company that cuts corners.
“I would walk before I was to get on a 737 Max,” he said.
Boeing faces dozens of lawsuits over the crashes. Just this month, the Southwest Airlines pilots’ union sued the company alleging fraudulent misrepresentation among other claims.
“Boeing abandoned sound design and engineering practices, withheld safety critical information from regulators and deliberately misled its customers, pilots and the public about the true scope of design changes to the 737 Max,” states the complaint filed in Dallas federal court.
Blumenthal told experts who testified after Muilenburg that Boeing recently indicated in a lawsuit unfolding in Illinois that the company plans to propose a change of venue — transferring the case for Lion Air Flight 610 to Indonesia — if settlement talks fail.
“Resolving these claims in Indonesia seems a lot less likely to provide justice to those families,” Blumenthal said.
Two sons of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 passenger Sebastian Tulsa flew from Italy to attend Tuesday’s hearing.
Their father, an archaeologist, was en route to Nairobi, Kenya, to give the opening speech at a UNESCO conference when he died in the crash.
Muilenburg told reporters when he arrived to testify that he had no plans to resign. But Andrea and Vincent Tulsa both said he should step down.
“Sometimes I didn’t think I would survive the shock because it’s not easy, especially in the first months,” Andrea Tulsa said. “The first months the pain was very strong.”
His brother added, “If they unground these planes we need to be sure, 100%, that these planes, these new planes, are working well.”