Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg faced tough questioning from senators on Tuesday about two crashes of 737 Max jets and whether the company concealed information about a critical flight system from regulators.
“We have made mistakes, and we got some things wrong,” Muilenburg conceded.
The hearing was taking place exactly one year after a 737 Max flown by Lion Air crashed off the coast of Indonesia, and about seven months after a second crash in Ethiopia. It is the first congressional testimony by a Boeing official since the first of two Max crashes that together killed 346 people including 18 Canadians on the flight in Ethiopia.
In several lawsuits filed on behalf of Canadian victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, plaintiffs allege the pilots were in a tug-of-war with the plane’s automated flight system, manually trying to climb while the computer caused the craft to dive repeatedly and ultimately crash.
Some members of the Senate Commerce Committee clashed with Muilenburg, cutting him off when they believed he was failing to answer their questions about a key flight-control system implicated in both crashes.
Boeing successfully lobbied regulators to keep any explanation of the system, called MCAS, from pilot manuals and training. After the crashes, the company tried to blame the pilots, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
“Those pilots never had a chance,” Blumenthal said. Passengers “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.”
Muilenburg denied that Boeing had ever blamed the pilots.
Indonesia investigators say Boeing’s design of a key flight-control system contributed to the crash of a Lion Air Max last October. Another Max crashed in Ethiopia in March, leading to a worldwide grounding of the plane.
“Both of these accidents were entirely preventable,” said Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
More than a dozen relatives of passengers who died in the accidents attended the hearing. Wicker invited them to stand and hold up large photos of their relatives, which they had carried into the room. Muilenburg turned in his seat to look at them.
In Indonesia, the CEO of the Lion Air vowed Tuesday to follow recommendations from a probe into the disaster. Relatives of victims scattered flowers on waters where the aircraft went down a year ago.
Muilenburg told senators that Boeing is in the final stages of updating flight software to improve safety by adding redundancy — tying MCAS to a second sensor and second computer at all times, and making the system’s ability to push a plane’s nose down less powerful.
Boeing hopes to win Federal Aviation Administration approval by year end to return the plane to flight. The FAA is also coming under scrutiny for relying on Boeing employees to perform some certification tests and inspections. It’s an approach FAA has followed for many years.
“We need to know if Boeing and the FAA rushed to certify the Max,” Wicker said.
— With files from The Canadian Press.
David Koenig, The Associated Press