The former Boeing 737 MAX test pilot who played a key role in the certification of the fatally flawed aircraft is taking a buyout from Southwest Airlines after two years with the Dallas carrier.
Mark Forkner, who came to Southwest in 2018 after working at Boeing on the 737 MAX approval process, is departing at the end of August, Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King confirmed Friday.
Forkner was one of 4,400 employees who “opted into the voluntary separation program offered to all 60,000 Southwest employees,” King said. About 500 pilots are taking the leave and 28% of Southwest’s employees have volunteered to take some kind of leave or a buyout.
Forkner’s role in the 737 MAX saga came under scrutiny in the fall when his messages to colleagues were some of the most damaging parts of hearings into the plane’s flawed anti-stall software system that resulted in two crashes and 346 deaths.
Forkner’s lawyer, David Gerger, did not respond to a request for comment.
Forkner was the chief technical pilot for the 737 MAX at Boeing and left in July 2018 when he came to work for Southwest, a logical move considering the fact that Southwest is the biggest customer of the 737 MAX and has staked its future on the new, fuel-efficient model. Southwest is the largest owner of 737 MAX jets, with 34, and has orders for hundreds more.
Forkner had been working at Southwest headquarters in Dallas and held the rank of first officer.
According to documents supplied to Congress, Forkner identified issues with the 737 MAX MCAS system and said, “So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly).” Other documents indicated he was pressured by management to make sure the plane could get past regulators without requiring extra training for pilots.
Boeing’s agreement with customers such as Southwest gave a $1 million per plane refund if extra simulator training was required.
Forkner did not testify in meetings, but congressional leaders said his emails and messages were part of a broader pattern at Boeing that put an emphasis on profit over safety. An upheaval at Boeing eventually led to the departure of CEO Dennis Muilenburg and several other top executives.
The 737 MAX is still grounded, although the Federal Aviation Administration finally released a list of fixes that could allow the plane to be recertified. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly has said he expects the plane to be ready to fly again in the fall and that the Dallas-based airline would bring it back, even though older planes have been grounded during the COVID-19 pandemic.