Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg plans to acknowledge that his company made mistakes when he faces lawmakers this week looking for answers about how flaws in the 737 Max led to a pair of deadly crashes just months apart.
"We know we made mistakes and got some things wrong," Muilenburg said in prepared testimony to a Senate committee reviewed by The Washington Post on Monday. "We own that, and we are fixing them."
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Investigations have faulted the company's design of an automated feature that malfunctioned before the crashes, driving the noses of the two planes down until they crashed.
Muilenburg is set to testify first on Tuesday, the anniversary of a crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people. A Max operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed in similar circumstances five months later, killing 157 people. The Max has been grounded worldwide since shortly after the second crash.
Tuesday's hearing is the first of a pair on Capitol Hill this week, giving members of the Senate and House the chance to publicly question Muilenburg as well as experts who have investigated the crashes and the design of the Max. Democrats in the House are expected to confront Muilenburg with information from some of the hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence they have amassed as they conduct their own investigation into the crashes.
For Muilenburg, who was recently stripped of his role as chairman of Boeing's board, the planned testimony is part of a campaign to win back public trust and to satisfy regulators - even as experts say the company is following its typical playbook after a crash, earning it a reputation for withholding information and pointing to others as blameworthy.
Muilenburg's prepared remarks cast the company as apologetic for the crashes and humbled by the scrutiny they prompted, but capable of learning from them and taking its own steps to improve safety.
"In the months since the accidents, there has been much criticism of Boeing and its culture," Muilenburg said in his prepared remarks. "We understand and deserve this scrutiny. But I also know the people of Boeing, the passion we have for our mission, and what we stand for."
The official Indonesian investigation into the crash, released Friday, said a combination of nine factors was responsible, including the design of an automated feature, an improperly repaired sensor, maintenance lapses and pilots who struggled as problems mounted in the cockpit.
The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing fixes to the Max designed to make it safe. Boeing needs the agency's approval if the Max is to fly again.
Muilenburg said in the prepared testimony that the fixes are the product of 100,000 hours work and have been subjected to 814 test flights. He also plans to reiterate organizational changes the company has made internally to improve safety.
But Muilenburg's prepared remarks do not touch on a key topic: the company's relationship with the FAA, which has come under scrutiny since the crashes.
The FAA has handed much of the responsibility for guaranteeing that planes are safe over to Boeing and other manufacturers, a system that investigators have found led to spotty oversight and allowed the automated feature on the Max to escape close scrutiny.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chairman of the committee Muilenburg is scheduled to appear before on Wednesday, told reporters Monday that there needs to be a change in the law allowing such companies to handle much of their own safety oversight.
"I would say Boeing's in no position to defend, and/or advocate against changes in this law," DeFazio said.
And in the months since the crash, the FAA has pushed ahead with plans to become more industry friendly, officials say.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who chairs a Senate aviation subcommittee, said last week that he was concerned about the close relationships between the FAA and the businesses it oversees, saying the agency was subject to "industry capture."
"There are enormous incentives to get very cozy with a couple of big companies," he said at an event hosted by the Hill newspaper. "I'm all for efficiencies, but the safety of the flying public is paramount."
In reviewing the Max ahead of approving it for flight, the FAA has been closely scrutinizing Boeing's work. Muilenburg said in his prepared remarks that the company and the agency have been working closely together on the fixes to the jet.
"All of their questions are being answered," Muilenburg plans to testify.
The faulty feature, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, was designed to automatically push the plane's nose down if it was at risk of stalling. But in the crashes, it took in erroneous data from a sensor and turned on repeatedly, confusing and overwhelming the pilots.
Boeing says the new version will not rely on a single sensor and will not activate repeatedly.
Muilenburg said he has flown on two demonstration flights and "could not be more confident in our solutions."
Nonetheless, Muilenburg is likely to face sharp questions this week over how the flawed Max design was ever put into production.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that Boeing underestimated the risk posed by the automated feature and overestimated the ability of pilots to bring it under control when there was a problem. The board also concluded that the crews were overwhelmed by alerts when things started to go wrong, and issued recommendations that included urging Boeing to rethink some of its design assumptions.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt is scheduled to testify before the Senate committee after Muilenburg, as is former board chairman Christopher Hart, who led an international review of the Max's design and approval by the FAA.
Last week, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the committee's top Democrat, introduced legislation that would give the NTSB's recommendations the force of law. Cantwell said the move would keep the United States at the "cutting edge of innovation to keep travelers safe."
- Washington Post