Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday that “we know we made some mistakes and got some things wrong” in the company’s handling of the 737 Max 8 jet, the infamous airliner that crashed in October 2018 and March 2019, resulting in 346 fatalities.
In a prepared statement, Muilenburg said he was “deeply sorry” for the crashes, both of which he acknowledged were related to a faulty sensor system called MCAS. The system’s incorrect readings triggered the plane’s automated system to initiate a nosedive, while pilots struggled to lift the plane upward. Muilenburg previously offered a personal apology to families in a May interview with CBS.
Senators grilled Muilenburg on Boeing’s prior lobbying for legislation that weakened the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulatory authority and on a set of recently released instant messages and emails, where former Boeing chief technical pilot Mark Forkner discussed the company “Jedi mind tricking regulators.” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal brought a poster highlighting a separate email where Forkner recommended that all references to MCAS be removed from the pilot’s manual prior to the 737 Max release.
Despite admitting to some wrongdoing at Boeing and offering his “deepest sympathies,” Muilenburg was considerably roundabout in answering senators’ questions. In an exchange with Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Muilenburg repeatedly dodged questions about whether Boeing failed to disclose any known defects in MCAS prior the 737 Max launch. Muilenburg explained the general process of airplane development, then quibbled with “the premise of the question” before explaining the three currently known MCAS issues without ever addressing Cantwell’s query.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Boeing currently faces at least 150 pending lawsuits from the families of victims of the crashes. Some of those family members appeared at the hearing holding photos of the deceased. The New York Times reported that following the hearing, Nadia Milleron, the mother of crash victim Samya Stumo, asked Muilenburg to “turn and look at people when you say you’re sorry.” Turning to face her, he said, “I’m sorry.”
The 737 Max has been grounded worldwide since March. Muilenburg said that “regulators around the world should approve the return of the Max to the skies only after they have applied the most rigorous scrutiny,” but also went on to highlight the considerable inconvenience the grounding had caused “airline customers […] pilots and flight attendants,” in what appeared to be a roundabout plea not to leave the aircraft grounded indefinitely. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said Tuesday that the FAA was still determining “when, whether, or how the 737 Max will return to service.” The Boeing CEO told the committee that Boeing has flown more than 800 test flights of the jet, adding that he had flown on two of the demonstration flights himself.
Muilenburg, who was stripped of his chairman’s role at Boeing earlier this month, declined to answer reporters’ questions prior to the hearing about pressure to resign, saying, “My focus is on the job at hand.” He will appear Wednesday before the House Transportation Committee.