This week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg admitted to Congress that his company made mistakes with the design of its 737 MAX jet and deserves the scrutiny it is receiving after two fatal crashes. Appearing before Congress on the first anniversary of the Lion Air crash—the first of two which claimed the lives of 346 passengers—he apologized to the family members present, stating, “We made mistakes and we got some things wrong.” Read CEO Muilenberg’s opening statement here.
But Senators were harshly critical of Boeing and the CEO, questioning how Boeing allowed the faulty design, which was based on a single sensor with no redundancy, to become part of the aircraft that would be widely used world-wide. They also raised the issue of certification, questioning whether the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing have an inappropriately close relationship.
In one remarkable outburst, Montana Democrat Sen. Jon Tester said the company “shouldn’t be cutting corners,” and said, “I would walk before I would get on a 737 MAX.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz was direct. He told Muilenburg: “The buck stops with you.”
Remarkably, the CEO admitted that he was aware of the company pilots’ descriptions of the unsafe behavior of the aircraft in the simulator before the second crash but did not explain why these messages were not revealed to the certification authorities. Boeing provided Mr. Forkner’s messages to the Justice Department in February, though it did not give them to lawmakers or the F.A.A. until this month—according to the The New York Times.
According to the Times, the most intense rounds of questioning concerned messages that Mark Forkner, a pilot critical to the development of the Max sent to a colleague in November 2016, months before the plane was certified by regulators. Forkner said in the messages that he had “unknowingly” lied to the F.A.A. about a new automated system, which was “running rampant” in the flight simulator and causing him trouble. “Delete MCAS,” Mr. Forkner wrote in the email, reviewed by The New York Times. He described the system as “way outside the normal operating envelope,” apparently implying that the MCAS would activate only in rare situations that pilots would almost never encounter in normal passenger flights.
The MCAS system, designed to help avoid stalls, ultimately contributed to both crashes, activating erroneously on faulty data, sending the planes into multiple and eventually irrecoverable nose-dives.
Boeing faces multiple federal investigations into the design of the plane, including a criminal inquiry led by the Justice Department. This is remarkable in the United States where criminal charges for aircraft accidents are almost never brought—and are very controversial.
James T. Crouse has been a pilot for thirty-two years, during which time he has performed as a U.S. Army aircraft maintenance officer, maintenance test pilot, and research and development test pilot. Mr. Crouse has litigation experience involving major air carriers, general aviation, helicopter, and military crashes, as well as non-aviation mass disaster litigation.