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Boeing CEO Faces Tough Questions From Lawmakers Over Safety Of 737 Max


The CEO of Boeing faced withering criticism today over the company's role in the crashes of two 737 MAX airplanes. Dennis Muilenburg was testifying before a Senate committee - tomorrow, same drill before a House committee. The first of those crashes happened exactly one year ago in Indonesia, and that was when a Lion Air jet plummeted into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff. The other crash was in Ethiopia this past March. NPR's David Schaper joins me.

Hey, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: Hey. Does - so describe the mood in that Senate hearing room today.

SCHAPER: You know, it was both somber and tense at times. You know, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg sat at a table with the company's chief engineer John Hamilton. Well, right behind them - just a couple of rows behind them - were several family members and loved ones of some of the 346 people who died in the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. And Muilenburg emotionally addressed them first.


DENNIS MUILENBURG: On behalf of myself and the Boeing company, we are sorry - deeply and truly sorry.

SCHAPER: Muilenburg went on to acknowledge that the company made mistakes and got some things wrong with the 737 MAX. He talked about some new safety protocols and procedures that the company is instilling and also some new channels for employees who have their own safety concerns - how they can raise those internally at the company.

KELLY: So he's talking about changes they want to make going forward, but did he get into specifics about what went wrong?

SCHAPER: He did. He admitted that both crashes involved this new flight control system that activated in response to a single faulty sensor, and the company's chief engineer acknowledged that there was a - they made a mistake by not adequately testing it. Senators demanded to know, though, how that system, called MCAS, could have had a single point of failure and - when redundancies have now long been the norm in aviation engineering. They also demanded to know why pilots were not even told that the safety critical system existed. With some of the audience holding up pictures of those killed in the crash, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal tore into Muilenburg.


RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Those pilots never had a chance. These loved ones never had a chance. They were in flying coffins as a result of Boeing deciding that it was going to conceal MCAS from the pilots.

KELLY: You do get a sense of the tension in that room today from just listening to that tape. David, I want to ask about a couple lines of reporting that you have been following as you've worked this story - that allegations of pressure inside Boeing to speed the development and the certification of this plane and also whether the FAA and Boeing got a little bit too cozy. Did that come out in this - in the hearing today?

SCHAPER: You know, this was one of those things that the senators asked about time and time again and tried to pressure CEO Muilenburg about. He acknowledged that, you know, scrutiny of Boeing's safety culture is certainly warranted and fair. But he still would not agree with those who contend that safety sometimes took a back seat to profitability at the corner - at the company, nor that, you know, any corners were cut in order to keep costs down. He also disagreed with characterizations that the company had become too cozy with the FAA.

When pressed on recently revealed internal messages between senior pilots at the company - this was from three years ago, and these pilots detailed problems with the flight control system - Muilenburg told the committee he knew about these early this year but that he just knew that they existed; he never actually read them. And that set off Republican Ted Cruz, who chairs the Aviation Subcommittee. He was just livid.


TED CRUZ: You're the CEO. The buck stops with you. Did you read this document? And how did your team not put it in front of you, run in with their hair on fire, saying, we got a real problem here? How did that not happen, and what does that say about the culture at Boeing?

SCHAPER: Muilenburg's response was that he just turned it over to legal counsel and thought that they would take care of it and put these through the proper channels. Other senators got mad, accusing Muilenburg of half-truths and misleading information.

KELLY: Right.

SCHAPER: And some pressed the CEO on why the company pushed regulators to allow these MAX planes all around the world to keep flying after they first crashed.

KELLY: David, we'll leave it there. That's NPR's David Schaper.

Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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