Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg would like you to know he’s sorry about the two crashes of his company’s 737 MAX jet that took the lives of 346 people. He said so repeatedly on Capitol Hill this week, at a Tuesday Senate hearing and one held Wednesday in the House of Representatives. He was, his testimony said, “deeply sorry,” about it all. “I’m sorry,” he told one woman whose daughter was killed in the second crash.
You could put together a lengthy compilation of chief executives assuring Congress in recent years how “deeply sorry” they are for the troubles or deaths their company’s actions — or inactions — caused. There’s GM’s Mary Barra, who was “deeply sorry” for refusing to recall millions of cars with an ignition glitch, which ultimately caused 13 deaths. Not one but two now-former Wells Fargo chief executives said they were “deeply sorry” for the company profiting by such means as setting up fake bank accounts for their unknowing customers. Equifax was “deeply sorry” for permitting lax conditions that resulted in the largest credit hack in American history, while BP head Tony Hayward told a House hearing he was “deeply sorry” for the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
A few years ago, I called these executives’ congressional apology tours a “great charade” in American life, designed to ensure that business continues on as usual. Boeing and Muilenburg is the latest example of that.
The Lion Air crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people last October and the Ethiopian Airlines crash responsible for the deaths of another 157 passengers and crew were caused, at least in part, by flaws in the Boeing 737 MAX’s automated operating system, a technology known as MCAS. It has subsequently emerged that as the company rushed the jet to the finish line, it ignored multiple warnings from pilots and engineers about flaws in the MCAS system and the Boeing work culture behind it.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of the two horrific crashes, Boeing appeared most concerned with the safety of company profits, not the passengers on its troubled plane. Even after the second crash, Muilenburg resisted even temporarily grounding the 737 MAX to get to the bottom of what caused the horrific deaths. As other countries — Canada, China, European nations, Singapore — banned the plane from their airspace, he pleaded his case to President Donald Trump, but to no avail. Thanks to public and congressional pressure, the FAA put the plane on temporary ice.
Only months after the first crash did Boeing even admit the company was at fault. In April, Muilenburg said he was “sorry.” Shocking, I know.
Since the crashes, report after report has surfaced of Boeing prioritizing profits over safety and quality in its manufacturing process. A survey of company employees done in 2016 and recently obtained by The Wall Street Journal showed that a number of Boeing employees felt under pressure from management when it came to handling safety issues and the FAA’s certification process. Perhaps that’s why another report, this one from U.S. and foreign regulators, released earlier this month determined the company did not provide adequate information to the FAA during the 737 MAX’s own certification process. How much Boeing has changed as a response to this horrifying series of events is subject to debate, to say the least. Boeing only informed the FAA this month about the existence of text messages between employees discussing potential issues with the MCAS system — despite the fact the company knew about them for months.
Muilenburg, who has been Boeing’s chief executive since 2015, believes he is the man to fix all this, telling Congress he’s “responsible” for fixing what went wrong under his corporate leadership. Under questioning Wednesday, he said he would not resign. He continues to collect his multimillion-dollar salary — $30 million in cash and stock for 2018. When asked about that, he passed the buck to the company’s board of directors — of which he was chairman until earlier this month. (Yes, it took almost a year from the date of the Lion Air crash for the rest of Boeing’s board to strip Muilenburg of the role.) In the meantime, the short-term thinking that led to the tragedies that grounded the 737 MAX have cost Boeing at least $8 billion — and those hundreds of lives.
I have no doubt Muilenburg is sorry for all the deaths and lost profits, but if there’s one thing the events of the past years and the two days of congressional hearings made clear, there’s precious little evidence Boeing’s culture has changed much in response to the double tragedy. No apology, no matter how heartfelt or well meaning, can compensate for that.