Two top Congressional members investigating the 737 MAX crisis accused Boeing of “deliberate concealment” of the jet’s new flight control system — a move they said was designed to keep the system out of flight control manuals and avoid costly, additional training requirements for flying the new jets.
The U.S. House members spoke with reporters Friday, addressing disturbing revelations in the latest batch of internal Boeing communications released to Congress this week.
Joined by Everett Congressman Rick Larsen, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio pointed to notes from a 2013 internal discussion that he said show how Boeing managers plotted to deceive safety regulators about the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) during the plane’s certification. The new flight control software on the MAX was later implicated in two crashes that killed 346 people and led to the plane’s ongoing global grounding in March.
“We had here deliberate concealment over a number of years leading to two fatal crashes, and there are many other things that are disturbing in these emails,” said DeFazio, D-Ore., citing the 100-plus pages of messages.
The committee intends to continue its monthslong investigation and will pursue legislation to change the way the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certifies aircraft, DeFazio and Larsen said. It will also seek further interviews with Boeing and FAA employees and may seek deeper scrutiny of how the certification process was carried out for other aircraft, including Boeing’s new 777X now under development, they said.
“The only way that Boeing can get to the finish line is to cooperate with Congress on this investigation,” Larsen said.
The documents released Thursday generally revealed how, during safety certification of the 737 MAX, Boeing employees spoke of deceiving international air safety regulators and airline customers, and successfully fended off moves over several years to require anything but minimal pilot training for the new airplane, in order to keep costs down for airlines and make the MAX more appealing.
Among the most troubling content were derogatory references to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and foreign regulators, to a simulator supplier and to airline customers, and descriptions of a corporate culture at Boeing where cost-saving and scheduling considerations outweighed quality and safety concerns. Mark Forkner, at the time chief technical officer on the MAX, figured prominently in the messages, often boasting of how he used his “jedi mind tricks” to dissuade regulators and airlines against seeking additional pilot training requirements on the MAX.
Boeing this week issued statements to apologize for and disavow the messages, saying they involved only a small number of employees. It vowed to discipline those involved who remain with the company.
DeFazio and Larsen each dismissed the company’s efforts to cast the messages as isolated exchanges among a few employees.
“Boeing is going to make scapegoats out of some of the people involved, I’m sure, trying to pretend that it didn’t come from on high, but it did,” DeFazio said. “They didn’t create this situation. They were under tremendous pressure from the beginning to be certain that this plane would not require pilots to have a high level of training, simulator training, to save money and make it more marketable.”
The July 2013 notes, which show Boeing managers discussing how to carefully present MCAS to the FAA as merely an extension of the plane’s existing speed trim system, rather than a new function, indicate the managers got buy-in from the FAA’s authorized representative, or AR. The representative — a Boeing employee allowed to act on behalf of the FAA under an oversight system that delegates authority to aerospace manufacturers — agreed to downplay how the addition of MCAS represented a major alteration from past versions of the 737.
“The authorized representative under the current system is supposed to represent the public safety interest and the FAA, and clearly, in this case, they did not,” DeFazio said. “So the system is broken, and I’m determined that we’re going to fix that system.”
The FAA’s delegation program in certifying the MAX has drawn scrutiny in the wake of the crashes of a Lion Air jet in October 2018, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March of last year. Citing a lack of funding and resources, the agency has over the years delegated increasing authority to Boeing to take on more of the work of certifying the safety of its own airplanes.
Larsen, who chairs the House panel’s aviation subcommittee, said Friday it’s no longer a matter of if federal lawmakers will change the FAA’s certification system, but how far they will go to change it.
“There’s no indication that any of this information is flowing through the organization so that that FAA or even the AR, the authorized representative, can make reasonable safety decisions,” Larsen said, referring to the content in the latest trove of internal Boeing documents. “That’s just one example of what could change.”
Larsen also criticized Boeing for delaying disclosure of the damning documents to committee members who have been investigating Boeing’s design, development and certification of the MAX for the past 10 months.
“If Boeing had been more forthcoming early on with this information — with the emails and the messaging — we could have gotten to solutions sooner,” Larsen said. “We could’ve spared women and men who designed and manufactured this airplane the frustration and disruption in their lives, and potentially we could’ve spared the lives of 346 people.”
The House transportation committee’s staff members were planning to discuss the latest trove of documents with Boeing lawyers later Friday, DeFazio said, and to ask what other information the company hasn’t yet divulged. DeFazio noted the roughly 500,000 emails and internal documents turned over so far don’t include communications among Boeing’s top executives.
“We don’t know how high up it went, but we hope to find that out,” he said.