Boeing Update: CEO grilled on 737 production meltdown last year

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WASHINGTON (Oct 30): Boeing Co President Dennis Muilenburg testifies before House lawmakers Wednesday, the day after being peppered with tough question in the Senate during his first appearance before lawmakers since a pair of the planemaker’s 737 Max jets crashed, killing 346 people.

In both fatal crashes, faulty data from one of two angle-of-attack sensors, which measure the pitch of the plane against the oncoming stream of air, caused a flight control system called MCAS to drive down the jet’s nose, which pilots struggled to counteract before ultimately entering a fatal dive.

Muilenburg is facing the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio, who’s overseen a months-long investigation into the certification of the 737 Max.

Here are the key developments:

Muilenburg Grilled on 737 Production Meltdown (12:12 p.m.)
Muilenburg was grilled by Representative Albio Sires, a Democrat from New Jersey, on a production meltdown last year caused by a shortage of parts as suppliers fell behind a new, record manufacturing pace at which 737 jets were built.

Sires read from a June 2018 email a senior manager who led a final assembly team at Boeing’s plant south of Seattle sent to Scott Campbell, who was vice-president and general manager of the 737 program at the time.

The Boeing manager warned that schedule pressure and fatigue are “creating a culture where employees are either deliberately or unconsciously circumventing established processes.” He added: “And for the first time in my life, I’m sorry to say that I’m hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing airplane.”

The factory issues raised by the employee weren’t related to MCAS.

Muilenburg said he’d read the concerns of the manager, who has since retired. The company took action to address the out-of-schedule work, including adding quality checkpoints, he said. The manufacturing pace for the 737 was trimmed 19% to a 42-jet monthly pace, after the Max was grounded globally. 

CEO ‘Will Never Forget’ Hearing Victims’ Stories (11:54 a.m.)
In an emotional exchange, Muilenburg described a private meeting Tuesday with the victims’ loved ones — many of whom have attended the hearings displaying large pictures of their smiling children, siblings and spouses.

“We wanted to listen and each of the families told us the stories of the lives that were lost and those were heart breaking,” said Muilenburg, his voice breaking with emotion. “I’ll never forget that.”

Michael Stumo, whose daughter died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash, told reporters Tuesday after the session: “It was very emotional”.

“But he was there, he heard, and he expressed his sorrow appropriately, and expressed a desire to change the culture of the company to make it better,” Stumo said.

CEO Acknowledges 737 Design Shortcomings (11:30 a.m.)
Muilenburg offered his most candid public assessment of the company’s shortcomings in designing a system implicated in two 737 Max crashes, after insisting for months that engineers followed the manufacturer’s and Federal Aviation Administration processes.

He said the company erred when it made a cockpit alert to inform pilots of disagreements between the 737 Max’s two angle-of-attack sensors available on only some of the jets instead of all, saying "we got that wrong up front”.

He also cited the original architecture of MCAS, which the company redesigned to incorporate readings from both angle-of-attack sensors instead of one on the original design. Thirdly, he said the company needs to improve communication and documentation.

But Muilenburg declined to name specific employees at Boeing or its 900-company supply chain who contributed to the botched design. “Mr. Chairman, my company and company alone is responsible,” he said. “I am accountable and my company is accountable.”

“We can and must do better,” Muilenburg said.

Lawmaker Confronts CEO With Internal Documents (10:53 a.m.)
DeFazio displayed slides of internal Boeing documents and emails — some never before seen publicly — raising questions about the development of MCAS, the flight control system linked to both crashes.

In both fatal crashes, faulty data from one of two angle-of-attack sensors, which measure the pitch of the plane against the oncoming stream of air, caused the MCAS to drive down the jet’s nose, which pilots struggled to counteract before ultimately entering a fatal dive.

In one document from 2015 a Boeing employee questioned the decision to permit MCAS to be triggered by only one of the two sensors mounted on the jet’s nose. Boeing has since redesigned MCAS to prevent a repeat of such a failure, in part by incorporating readings from both angle-of-attack sensors.

“I guess the question is, why wasn’t it that way from day one?” DeFazio said.

Another document from 2018, examined Boeing’s assumptions about how quickly pilots would respond to an MCAS malfunction.

Muilenburg concedes Boeing made three mistakes on MCAS: designing it to activate with a single sensor, omitting it from pilot training and under-estimating how long pilots would take to respond when the system kicked on.

“We made some mistakes. We discovered some things we didn’t do right. We own that. We are responsible for our planes,” Muilenburg said. “If we knew then what we know now we would have done it differently.”

Day Two Opens with CEO Response to New Allegations (10:03 a.m.)
As he was arriving for the hearing, Muilenburg told reporters that the safety concerns that prompted a manager to urge the company to pause the 737 Max assembly line were unrelated to the two fatal crashes by the jet.

The issue was related to “concerns about production line safety as we were moving to production rate changes,” Muilenburg said.

The comment came in response to assertions made Tuesday by DeFazio that a Boeing manager urged a superior to halt the 737 Max assembly line over safety concerns, one of a number of new allegations stemming from an investigation began by the panel days after the second 737 Max crash last March.

“We now know 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, several months before the Lion Air crash in October 2018,” DeFazio wrote in prepared remarks for the hearing.

Key Events:

Muilenburg’s testimony on Tuesday came one year from the day when a Lion Air 737 Max plunged into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board. The appearances are the first public questioning of a senior Boeing leader by lawmakers since the crash, and a subsequent one by an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max in March, which killed all 157 people on board that led to the worldwide grounding of the company’s top-selling and most profitable passenger jet.

Uncertainty over when the 737 Max family of jets will fly again is rippling through the airline industry and Boeing’s finances. The U.S. manufacturer’s bill is US$9.2 billion and rising, as it faces questions about the plane’s development and its own transparency. Boeing is aiming for a return to service later this year, but some airlines have pulled Max flights through next year.

Both Democratic and Republican Senators alike grilled Muilenburg on Tuesday, especially on whether Boeing had too much sway in certifying the 737 Max through a longstanding program at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that deputizes company employees to issue safety approvals on the agency’s behalf.

Muilenburg defended that program during the hearing, and refused to publicly endorse any specific reforms when pressed by Senate lawmakers.

A report released Friday by Indonesian investigators highlighted the role of designees in approving the 737 Max design, including what investigators have flagged as a key vulnerability in the jet’s flight controls that malfunctioned during the fatal crashes.