The head of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, offered U.S. Senators a mea culpa on Tuesday as lawmakers across the board sought answers and demanded accountability for the deadly crashes of two Boeing 737 Max planes.
"We made mistakes and got some things wrong," Muilenburg, Boeing's president and CEO, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. "We are sorry — deeply and truly."
The testimony comes exactly 12 months after a 737 Max operated by Lion Air crashed off the coast of Indonesia, killing all 189 people on board. Just five months later, 157 people were killed on an Ethiopian Airlines' 737 Max, which went down shortly after takeoff in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. The back-to-back crashes led to a global grounding of all 737 Max planes, disrupting air travel worldwide.
"These families deserve answers, accountability, and action. And the public deserves no less," said Committee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), referring to the numerous family members of crash victims that attended the hearing.
Following the crashes, Boeing came under enormous scrutiny for skirting safety protocols and rushing the implementation of the 737 Max's anti-stall software, called MCAS, which malfunctioned and sent the two planes into nosedives. Federal regulators also came under fire for allowing an easing of inspections on new aircraft at the time.
"We understand and deserve this scrutiny," said Muilenburg, who acknowledged that the crashes were caused by MCAS — Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — defects that responded to erroneous signals from flight path sensors.
Muilenburg said that Boeing has made numerous MCAS improvements, which prevents the system from directing any immediate maneuvers or from taking any action that cannot be easily overridden by a pilot. More than 100,000 engineering and test hours, Muilenburg said, were dedicated to developing the fixes.
Family members attend a burial service for the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash in Addis Ababa in March. Photo Credit: STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, grilled Muilenburg and Boeing's vice president and chief engineer, John Hamilton, on what went wrong during the 737 Max's development and rollout, and why fail-safes were not in place to prevent such fatal flaws.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), in particular, slammed Boeing for making the conscious decision to not include MCAS training materials in its manual for 737 Max pilots and foregoing oversight procedures.
"These loved ones lost lives because of an accident that was not only preventable … but was the result of a pattern of deliberate concealment," said Blumenthal, who invited family members in attendance to hold up large pictures of those they lost. "These loved ones never had a chance. They were in flying coffins."
Muilenburg said that the premise that Boeing would "lie and conceal" is not consistent with the company's values. Tuesday's hearing was Muilenburg's first public testimony on Capitol Hill since the two crashes.
"You're the CEO, the buck stops with you," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a fiery exchange with Muilenburg. Cruz, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, lambasted the CEO for ignoring red flags and obfuscating internal probing after the second 737 Max crash in an effort to avoid the fleet's global grounding.
Several senators also criticized Boeing's relationship with, and influence over, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — a "cozy relationship," as Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) noted. Muilenburg rejected the notion that Boeing and the FAA were in cahoots and stressed Boeing's respect for the FAA as an independent agency that conducts vital oversight. The FAA was also condemned during the hearing for ceding to Boeing the testing of the MCAS, which was approved for use in 2017 without additional stress testing from outside regulators.
"We cannot have a race for commercial airplanes to become a race to the bottom when it comes to safety," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee's ranking member. "The company, the board cannot prioritize profit over safety."
Multiple senators said they were considering new legislation to ensure regulatory measures are adequate and that aviation oversight remains firmly in place. Muilenburg and Hamilton will also provide testimony and face scrutiny from lawmakers on Wednesday at a scheduled hearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Speaking in Indonesian, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) told the bereaved families that "we will, as senators, get to the bottom of this tragedy and will continue to investigate this and we will not stop."