Dennis Muilenburg, chief executive officer of the Boeing Co., gestures during the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 7, 2019.
Anna Moneymaker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg is facing two congressional hearings this week to answer questions about the design, certification and marketing of its flagship 737 Max planes — his first public appearances on Capitol Hill since two fatal crashes killed 346 people in the past year.
The two crashes prompted a worldwide grounding of the 737 Max, Boeing’s bestseller. They also spurred probes of certification methods used by the air safety regulators that handed over more tasks to the manufacturer, with the blessing of lawmakers themselves.
Lawmakers will quiz Muilenburg about production pressure on Boeing staff and how the company marketed the plane around the world, touting that it didn’t require time-consuming training for pilots to switch from older models.
The world is watching
The hearings will be closely watched by airlines, some of which have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue due to the grounding, and by pilots, investors, regulators and victims’ family members, including more than a dozen who plan to attend the hearings and meet with Muilenburg afterward. It will be the first time they have met with him, according to a spokesman for their attorney.
The first hearing, held by the Senate Commerce Committee, is set for Tuesday morning, the anniversary of the Lion Air Flight 610 crash. The near brand-new 737 Max went down shortly after takeoff, killing all 157 on board. Another new 737 Max, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, crashed at a similar stage in flight in March. All 189 people on that flight were killed.
“How the hell did this happen?” Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, before which Muilenburg is set to appear on Wednesday, said he wants to know. The Oregon Democrat told reporters Monday that investors pressured Boeing into developing and marketing the plane quickly. “This all starts on Wall Street.”
Boeing and airlines have said that pilots will be a key part of ensuring passengers are comfortable flying on the 737 Max. Last week American said it expects to lose $540 million in pretax revenue this year because of the grounding.
“The whole world’s watching,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents the some 15,000 pilots at American Airlines.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, who faced angry lawmakers two years ago after a passenger was violently dragged off a plane flying for the airline, advised Muilenburg to be direct.
“You cannot call a question as not particularly smart. You have to answer the questions,” Munoz told reporters in Chicago last week. “You have to face the facts, and the fact of the matter is 346 people died and that is a big impact on anyone.”
Boeing has been criticized by safety experts for underestimating the stress that multiple cockpit warnings put on pilots, hurting their ability to regain control of the plane. A flight-control program, known as MCAS, malfunctioned and was implicated in both crashes. A final report on the Lion Air flight, which was released Friday, faulted Boeing and the FAA’s approval of the plane, as well as maintenance issues and pilot error in the two fatal crashes.
Boeing has made the system less powerful and added redundancies, such as the use of data from a second sensor, to avoid a repeat of the two crashes. However, the FAA said last week that it would need several weeks before it lifts the flying ban on the Max.
Pressure mounts on Muilenburg
The release of internal Boeing messages earlier this month that showed one of its pilots had concerns about the MCAS system while in a simulator plunged Boeing into more turmoil. The FAA publicly scolded Boeing, a rare move, for not sharing the messages earlier.
In other emails made public, the same pilot, Mark Forkner, who now works at Southwest, instructed the FAA to delete MCAS from manuals, before the FAA first certified the planes in 2017. Pilots complained they didn’t know about the system until after the first crash. In another email, Forkner boasted to an FAA employee about “jedi mind-tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by FAA etc.”
Race to market
The emails and the tens of thousands of other documents House lawmakers have reviewed in their probe will draw questions about Boeing’s culture and its race to get its plane to market and win over airlines to top its chief rival, France-based Airbus.
Boeing is already facing multiple investigations, including a criminal probe.
Last week, Boeing ousted the head of its commercial airplane unit — the source of 60% of its revenue last year — amid the crisis, and earlier this month, the board stripped Muilenburg of his chairmanship, saying separating the roles would better help the CEO focus on bringing the Max back to service.
Boeing expects regulators to allow the jet to fly again before the end of the year, but airlines including United, Air Canada, American, Southwest and Icelandair have taken the Max out of their schedules until early 2020.