The Slatest

Boeing Hands Over Internal Employee Messages Describing 737 Max as “Designed by Clowns”

Three Boeing 737 Max airplanes are parked side by side on the tarmac.
Boeing 737 Max airplanes are parked at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington, on Oct. 23, 2019. David Ryder/Getty Images

Things appear to only get worse for Boeing these days, and Thursday was no different, as the American company disclosed more than a hundred pages of internal emails and instant messages to congressional investigators that showed employees describing cover-ups and concern over the safety of the 737 Max airliner. Whether employees are grousing or exaggerating or being darkly sardonic, the internal comments give an unvarnished view of some of those closest to the aerospace manufacturing company’s production of the 737 Max, the plane that has since crashed twice and been grounded worldwide. The nature of the crashes—particularly the functioning of the airliner’s software system—has raised troubling questions about Boeing’s willingness to pursue profit at the expense of safety, its relationship with regulators, and what exactly it knew about the problems in its marquee aircraft.

“The most damaging messages included conversations among Boeing pilots and other employees about software issues and other problems with flight simulators for the Max, a plane later involved in two accidents, in late 2018 and early 2019, that killed 346 people and threw the company into chaos,” the New York Times reports. “The employees appear to discuss instances in which the company concealed such problems from the [Federal Aviation Administration] during the regulator’s certification of the simulators, which were used in the development of the Max, as well as in training for pilots who had not previously flown a 737.”

How bad was the employee chatter? Here’s a sampling:

• “I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year,” one employee said in a message in 2018 in an apparent reference to prior dealings with the FAA.

• “Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t,” one employee said to a colleague before the first crash in 2018. “No,” the colleague said.

• “This airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys,” an employee wrote in 2017.

The messages also show how the company pushed to reduce the scope of mandatory training for pilots to fly the new aircraft in order to cut costs. Regulators ultimately agreed to only mandate computer-based training, rather than full simulator training, for pilots with experience flying another model, the 737 NG. “You can be away from an NG for 30 years and still be able to jump into a MAX? LOVE IT!!” a Boeing marketing employee said in an email after the FAA decision. “This is a big part of the operating cost structure in our marketing decks.” This week, Boeing reversed course and recommended simulator training for pilots new to the 737 Max.

Last year, Boeing disclosed other internal messages from 2016 where a pilot working on the 737 Max before its launch said he “was experiencing trouble controlling the Max in a flight simulator and believed that he had misled the F.A.A.,” according to the Times. “I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” the pilot messaged to a colleague. Boeing did not inform the FAA about those messages when the company discovered them; instead it sat on them until just weeks before the company’s CEO was scheduled to testify before Congress.

All in all, yikes. The messages corroborate what has been trickling out for months: Boeing was playing fast and loose with passenger safety despite worrying indicators. “We regret the content of these communications, and apologize to the F.A.A., Congress, our airline customers and to the flying public for them,” Boeing said in a statement to Congress about the newly disclosed messages. “The language used in these communications, and some of the sentiments they express, are inconsistent with Boeing values, and the company is taking appropriate action in response. This will ultimately include disciplinary or other personnel action, once the necessary reviews are completed.”

“These communications contain provocative language, and, in certain instances, raise questions about Boeing’s interactions with the F.A.A. in connection with the simulator qualification process,” the statement said. “Having carefully reviewed the issue, we are confident that all of Boeing’s Max simulators are functioning effectively.”