Outside of the recent Boeing Company’s annual meeting of shareholders in Chicago, cold rain and wind lashed those of us gathered to show attendees images of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines 737-MAX crash in which my niece, Samya Stumo, died. Inside the building, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg also faced a storm of sorts from shareholders and members of the press. When it was over, he had aggravated matters with the canned talking points that he recited and the partial acceptance of fault that he repeatedly offered and retracted.
Boeing’s lawyers and others advising the CEO to produce his stilted words are calculating that, supported by pilots and airlines, the return to service of its MAX airplanes will open the revenue spigot again and rescue the stock price. The victims’ families would then be left with lonely late-night reading and lawyers of their own to try and piece together truth and justice. But Muilenburg’s current path is unlikely to take his company where he hopes to go.
Bereaved family members, which number in the thousands for the two MAX crashes, do not live in a world gone by wherein thin envelopes of cash or brief expressions of sympathy might have gained our silence. Nothing will prove more motivating to us as a group than arrogant or opaque denials or half-truths, whether those come from Boeing, the FAA, an airline or an investigative body. We are a dispersed lot looking for the core truths behind these devastating crashes to crystallize and draw us together. Many of us spend hours each day reading about the causes of the crashes and the fundamental flaws evident in Boeing’s process and product.
Muilenburg repeatedly reached verbally for accident “chains of events” in his short news conference. He claimed that Boeing has been ” … very diligent about respecting the integrity of the investigation process throughout.” But he proceeded to allude to alleged errors made by the pilots of the two flights, thus disrespecting the integrity of that very same investigative process. Muilenburg could not bring himself to focus solely on his company’s role in the crashes.
In my reading, most aerospace engineers outside of Boeing consider the design and implementation of the MAX’s handling qualities software, MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) to be a fundamental failure, even as they quibble about details or express doubts about certain unknowns. Even those aviation-safety analysts publicly most critical of the steps taken or omitted by the JT610 and ET302 cockpit crews in response to the nose-down anomalies on the doomed flights, aviation experts Vaughn Cordle and Don McGregor, hardly let Boeing off easy. They cite as an important contributing factor, “Boeing’s omission in terms of disseminating critical MCAS characteristics to FAA and carriers prior to the Lion Air crash and during aircraft certification.”
Muilenburg has tied himself in knots to avoid admitting as much, but by its very actions since the first crash, Boeing is indicting its own process. The more its fix diverges from the original design, the more the company has to answer for the design mistakes that it overlooked in its rush to market and sell the MAX.
Extending the accident model, we can imagine a much larger chain of events, one that stretches from the gleaming floors at Boeing to the drab ones at the FAA and into the polished halls of the U.S. Congress. This is one chain that Boeing’s executives would have us believe is not in any need of inspection. But most people examining Boeing’s process from afar, including family members of loved ones lost, strongly disagree. As we converge on the hard questions at multiple levels — design, engineering, marketing, lobbying, certifications and crashes — that we intend to have answered, Boeing will not be allowed an escape as quick as the one its CEO made after facing questions for just 14 minutes, having pronounced nothing worthy of a leader let alone an engineer.