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Boeing pilot's 2016 worry on 'egregious' Max roils Jet's future

Newly revealed messages spur rupture between planemaker, FAA

Julie Johnsson Alan Levin & Ryan Beene | Bloomberg 

Boeing 737 MAX
Boeing 737 MAX

Co and the US Federal Aviation Administration are engulfed in a public rupture over a bombshell revelation about the 737 Max, and the timing couldn’t be worse -- just as the planemaker and the regulator are working to get the grounded jet back in the skies.

The feud centers on messages between senior pilots in late 2016, as the aircraft was in testing. One of the pilots recounted a rocky simulator trial of software known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, which would later play a role in two fatal crashes that killed 346 people. The handling performance was “egregious,” he said.

The FAA blasted on Friday for not sharing the transcripts, even though the company had discovered the instant messages months earlier. Boeing gave the documents to the Justice Department in February, the month before the second deadly accident, said a person familiar with the matter. But the company didn’t inform the FAA because the regulator is also a subject of the same criminal investigation.

The schism endangers an effort to rebuild public trust in the 737 Max and U.S. safety oversight after months of bruising publicity for both Boeing and the FAA. The commercial return of Boeing’s best-selling plane has slipped repeatedly and now isn’t likely before early 2020. The delays have cost the planemaker at least $8.4 billion so far, while jeopardizing the job of Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg.

“From a technical perspective, the revelation need not affect the timing but, in our view, there is a political/public relations aspect of returning the Max,” Seth Seifman, an analyst with JPMorgan Chase & Co. said in a note Friday. “Boeing, regulators, and carriers have to sell the technical and cultural changes credibly -- and while the impact is difficult to quantify, the news is negative.”

Boeing tumbled 6.8% to $344 at the close of trading Friday, the worst drop since February 2016 and the biggest decline on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The plunge wiped out $14 billion of market value in a day.

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Terse Letter

Boeing sent the pilots’ messages to the Department of Transportation on Thursday evening, notifying officials that the exchange would be provided a day later to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is conducting an investigation of the Max’s certification. The FAA provided its own version to the committee, and issued a public statement along with a terse letter to Muilenburg demanding more information.

“I understand that Boeing discovered the document in its files months ago,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in the letter. “I expect your explanation immediately regarding the content of this document and Boeing’s delay in disclosing the document to its safety regulator.”

The FAA didn’t comment directly on whether the latest news would alter the schedule for certifying the plane to fly again. The agency said as recently as last week that any actions associated with the original approval of the plane aren’t relevant to the work it’s conducting now. Regulators have required Boeing to perform a new safety analysis of MCAS and is requiring multiple tests that weren’t done prior to the jet’s original certification in 2017.

Muilenburg called Dickson to respond to the concerns, Boeing said in a statement. Asked whether the Max’s comeback would be affected, company spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, “we’ll continue to follow the path to certification as currently outlined by the FAA.”

The pilots’ messages and the resulting split between Boeing and the FAA marked a stunning turn in the saga of the Max, which has been grounded worldwide since March 13. While the manufacturer has said repeatedly that it followed proper procedures to certify the plane, the communications show that senior pilots at the company were concerned about a critical aspect of its design and were worried that regulators had been misled.

ALSO READ: Internal messages suggest employees may have misled FAA on 737 MAX

The November 2016 instant messages were between Mark Forkner, then Boeing’s chief technical pilot for the 737, and another 737 technical pilot, Patrik Gustavsson.

In the communications, Forkner and Gustavsson raised multiple concerns about MCAS, including not being given data by the company’s test pilots and Forkner describing his alarm at simulator tests in which he encountered troubling behavior in the system. MCAS automatically pushes down the plane’s nose if the flight computer senses the jet is in danger of an aerodynamic stall.

Forkner had earlier assured the FAA that MCAS was benign and didn’t need to be included in flight manuals, according to emails the regulator released Friday. Earlier in 2016, the FAA had approved the company’s request, said the person, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue and asked not to be named.

‘Running Rampant’

Forkner told Gustavsson that MCAS was “running rampant in the sim on me,” referring to simulator tests of the aircraft. “Granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious.”

Forkner expressed concern that he may have unknowingly misled the FAA. “So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” he wrote.

“It wasn’t a lie, no one told us this was the case,” Gustavsson replied.

Two months later, Forkner emailed an official at the FAA to remind the agency that MCAS wasn’t going to be included in flight manuals. Forkner is now a pilot at Southwest Airlines Co., the carrier said in a statement.

“If you read the whole chat, it is obvious that there was no ‘lie,’” David Gerger, a lawyer for Forkner, said in an email. “The simulator was not reading right and had to be fixed to fly like the real plane. Mark’s career -- at Air Force, at FAA, and at Boeing -- was about safety. And based on everything he knew, he absolutely thought this plane was safe.”

Congressional Pressure

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, said the exchange “essentially constitutes a smoking gun” of the pressure exerted by Boeing executives to get the 737 Max into service quickly. He said Muilenburg, who is scheduled to speak before the committee on Oct. 30, should resign.

The CEO will also take the spotlight on Oct. 23, when Boeing reports earnings. He is sure to be asked whether he has any updates on the return of the Max.

“The text messages, as reported, appear to take issues to a next level, suggesting misleading statements from Boeing during the certification process,” Bernstein analyst Douglas Harned said in a report. “We need to learn more details before coming to a conclusion regarding what this news means in terms of any legal actions, implications for management, and impact on the timing for a Max return to service.”


©2019Bloomberg

First Published: Sat, October 19 2019. 21:05 IST
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