A Boeing Co. manager sought to halt production of the 737 Max over safety concerns before the first of two fatal crashes that led to the jet’s worldwide grounding, a top House lawmaker charged Tuesday.
Representative Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, included the new allegations in a prepared statement for a hearing Wednesday at which Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg will testify. The CEO testified Tuesday before a Senate committee about the Max, which has been banned from flying since 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, an Oregon Democrat, said in his prepared opening statement, which was released by the committee.
DeFazio’s accusations pile pressure on Muilenburg as the embattled CEO prepares for a second day of grilling on Capitol Hill. Muilenburg is fighting to save his job amid heightened scrutiny from Boeing directors. He’s also trying to salvage the US industrial titan’s reputation following months of bruising disclosures about shortcomings in the design and certification of the Max, Boeing’s best-selling jet. The crashes killed 346 people.
Even as senators peppered Muilenburg with blistering questions, Boeing rose as investors seemed convinced that the testimony wouldn’t impede the Federal Aviation Administration’s review of whether the grounded Max can safely resume commercial flight after a redesign of flight-control software. The shares advanced 2.4 per cent to $348.93 at the close in New York, the third-best performance on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
DeFazio didn’t detail the nature of the safety concerns raised by the Boeing manager or how the company responded. The Chicago-based planemaker didn’t immediately comment.
At least one whistle-blower also told the committee that the company sacrificed safety for cost savings, DeFazio wrote. Boeing also considered adding a more robust alerting system for the feature involved in two crashes before ultimately shelving the idea, according to DeFazio.
“We may never know what key steps could have been taken that would have altered the fate of those flights, but we do know that a variety of decisions could have made those planes safer and perhaps saved the lives of those on board,” DeFazio said.
The statement by DeFazio is the first detailed look at findings by the committee, which is conducting what the chairman called the “most extensive and important” investigation he’s seen during his time on the panel.
Some of the statement was crafted as questions for Muilenburg.
“There are areas we are exploring that remain murky, and we need to bring clarity to those issues,” DeFazio said. “But there is a lot we have learned over the past seven months, and we expect you to answer a number of questions to improve our understanding of what happened and why.”
About 20 relatives of crash victims attended Tuesday’s Senate hearing, and Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker opened the session by promising them that the inquiry would get to the bottom of what went wrong.
“Both of these accidents were entirely avoidable,” Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, said as he gaveled the hearing to order. “We cannot fathom the pain experienced by the families of those 346 souls who were lost.”
A flight-safety feature known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, designed to lower the nose of the plane in some conditions, was activated in both fatal crashes as a result of a malfunction and pilots in both cases didn’t respond and lost control. The plane was grounded by the FAA on March 13.
Muilenburg apologized directly to the family members of victims who died in the crashes -- many of whom had brought large photos of their loved ones -- and said the company was committed to safety and to learning from the accidents.
“We’ve been challenged and changed by these accidents. We’ve made mistakes and we got some things wrong,” Muilenburg said.
The CEO sometimes fumbled his explanations of embarrassing internal messages and the manufacturer’s close ties to US regulators. And he didn’t rattle off changes made to improve safety with the aplomb and detail with which General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra once addressed faulty ignition issues before lawmakers, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management.
But Muilenburg avoided other traps, such as sounding defensive, dismissive or arrogant, Sonnenfeld said.
“I think he came across as genuine and contrite,” he said. “He wasn’t elegant, but he wasn’t arrogant.”
After the hearing, Muilenburg held a charged meeting with a group of victims’ relatives, his first such direct interaction since the accidents.
“It was very emotional in there to have the CEO of the company that had a substantial part in killing my daughter, Samya Rose Stumo,’’ Michael Stumo said in a press conference after the meeting.
“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, vowing that the group would continue to press for legislation to change aviation safety rules.