Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing's chief executive, said he considered stepping down after the company's signature 737 Max had two fatal accidents.
"It's fair to say I've thought about it," he said at the DealBook conference last week, during a wide-ranging discussion of how he has handled the fallout from the crashes, which killed 346 people.
Muilenburg said he decided to remain in his position because he felt responsible for getting the company through the crisis. "I don't see running away from a challenge, resigning, as a solution," Muilenburg said. "These two accidents, they happened on my watch on Boeing. And I feel obligated, I feel responsible to stay on it."
Muilenburg said he decided to give up "tens of millions of dollars" in incentive pay after meeting recently with families of victims of the crashes. "I felt it was important for me to forgo those bonuses and send a message of responsibility," he said.
During congressional hearings late last month, lawmakers assailed Muilenburg for not taking a pay cut since the accidents and repeatedly demanded that he directly address families of the crash victims who were there.
Last Tuesday, David Calhoun, chairman of Boeing's board, said in an interview on CNBC that Muilenburg had revisited the questions about his pay. Muilenburg called Calhoun on the following Saturday "with the purpose of suggesting he not take any compensation for 2019," Calhoun said.
Muilenburg offered to forgo his bonus and stock, which comprise the vast majority of his pay, until the plane is flying again "in its entirety," Calhoun said. It could take until 2021 for Boeing to deliver hundreds of idled Max jets to airlines around the world.
Last month, the board took away Muilenburg's title as chairman, replacing him with Calhoun. When asked why the company said it believed the plane was safe even though employees had voiced concerns, Muilenburg said he would have responded to the first crash differently "if back then we knew everything that we know now."
"We tried at every step to make the best decisions based on the data we had," he said. "But we could have done better."
The following are excerpts from his conversation with Andrew Ross Sorkin. They have been edited and condensed.
Q: There's been so much criticism of the company throughout this whole process that it hadn't been as human. And I wonder whether you feel now that you should have visited with the families earlier.
A: Andrew, I think about that every day. And I wish I had gone to visit them earlier. Yeah, we've been focused ever since the accidents on understanding what happened, doing everything we can to fix the airplane, to improve the Max. We've been focused on working to make it the safest airplane ever to fly. But the personal element of this, and the impact it's had on families — you know, it's reminded me of the importance of the work we do. But until it's personal, until you really talk with the families and really hear those personal stories, there's nothing else like that. And that's going to stick with me forever.
Q: Ralph Nader's grandniece was killed on one of these planes, and [he] has said repeatedly that he doesn't think these planes technically should ever go back in the air, that physically the way they're structured no matter what software is put on them, that there's a fundamental problem. What do you say to him?
A: Well, I certainly respect his opinion. And I know, yeah, with the personal effect this has had on him and all the families, I'm going to respect those inputs. And we're going to listen to that, and we're empathetic to that.
Q: But have you ever looked at the plane and said, "Look, physically it's …?"
A: This airplane is solid. This is an airplane that's in the family of Boeing airplanes and our heritage of how we design integrated airplanes. Clearly we can make some improvements to it. But this is a solid airplane.
Written by: Natalie Kitroeff
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