Exactly one year after a Lion Air flight lifted off from Jakarta, Indonesia, and plunged into the Java Sea, killing 189 people, lawmakers on Capitol Hill grilled Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg on the failures of his company’s best-selling plane, the 737 Max.
In a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Muilenburg offered an apology to the families of the victims of two deadly crashes, including the 157 people who were aboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed in March.
“On behalf of myself and the Boeing Company, we are sorry, deeply and truly sorry,” Muilenburg said. “As a husband and father myself, I am heartbroken by your losses.”
The mea culpa did little to lessen senators’ scrutiny of the company, as they went on to question Muilenburg for nearly three hours over safety certifications and whether there was sufficient Federal Aviation Administration oversight of pilot training and the Max, which has been grounded worldwide.
Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) pointed to recently unveiled emails and instant messages between Boeing and the FAA. In one exchange, Mark Forkner, a former chief technical pilot at Boeing, boasted that he was “jedi-mind tricking regulators.”
“Can you see that this raises much concern about the level of coziness between Boeing personnel and FAA regulators?” Wicker asked.
Muilenburg, who claimed to have only seen the messages within the past couple of weeks, said that he “understands the concern” and that the sentiments of the remarks run “counter to our values.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who called the CEO’s testimony “quite dismaying,” read through a 2016 text exchange between Forkner and Patrick Gustavsson, another test pilot, in which Forkner said the Max’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, known as MCAS, was “running rampant.”
MCAS is a stabilization feature that was designed to force down the nose of the aircraft if its angle got too steep and thereby prevent the plane from stalling. It has been blamed as a factor in both crashes. Investigators have found that the system was triggered by faulty sensor data that erroneously indicated the planes were at risk of stalling.
But MCAS was not mentioned in the Max’s flight manuals. The decision to leave out the information was made just months after Forkner and Gustavsson’s text correspondence, which was given to the Justice Department in February.
Cruz slammed Muilenburg’s claim that he had only seen the conversation this month, asking “how in the hell did nobody bring this to your attention” earlier this year.
Muilenburg said that while he was “made aware of the existence of this kind of document,” he “counted on my counsel to handle that appropriately.”
“You’re the CEO. The buck stops with you,” Cruz shot back. “How did your team not put it in front of you, run in with their hair on fire saying, ‘We’ve got a real problem here’?” he added.
Muilenburg repeated that he “didn’t see the details of this exchange until recently” and that he wasn’t sure what Forkner meant in those texts, speculating that the pilot may have been speaking in reference to a simulation but noting that he couldn’t be certain.
“I would walk before I was to get on the 737 Max,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) later said. “I would walk. There’s no way.”
Muilenburg is set to appear before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday.