Boeing Employees Mocked FAA In Internal Messages Before 737 Max Disasters

Jan 9, 2020
Originally published on January 16, 2020 9:22 am

Updated at 9:58 p.m. ET

The latest documents Boeing has released related to the design and certification of the 737 Max paint a dark picture of employee reactions to problems that came up during the development of the now-grounded airliners.

The documents include emails and internal communications. In one message, employees mock the Federal Aviation Administration and brag about getting regulators to approve the jets without requiring much additional pilot training.

In another document, an employee ridicules colleagues involved in the development of the troubled plane, saying, "This airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys."

Crashes of 737 Max airliners in 2018 and 2019 killed a total of 346 people.

Some of the most concerning messages involve discussions of problems with the company's Max flight simulators in which the company employees suggest they misled regulators about potential problems with the Max.

"I still haven't been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year," one employee says in 2018, referring to an exchange of information with the FAA.

Another damning exchange calls into question the safety of the 737 Max long before the plane was approved to fly passengers.

"Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn't," says one employee to another, who responds, "No."

House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called newly released documents "incredibly damning," adding that "they paint a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go to in order to evade scrutiny from regulators, flight crews, and the flying public, even as its own employees were sounding alarms internally."

A Boeing official said the communications were written by a small number of employees, primarily Boeing technical pilots and personnel involved with the development and qualification of Boeing's 737 Max simulators. Some of them are the same employees involved in sending other damaging emails and internal messages that were disclosed last year.

The company official said the language used and sentiments expressed in these communications "are inconsistent with Boeing values, and the company is taking appropriate action in response."

The FAA reviewed the documents for safety implications. "Our experts determined that nothing in the submission pointed to any safety risks that were not already identified as part of the ongoing review of proposed modifications to the aircraft," the FAA said in a statement.

The statement goes on to call the tone and some of the language contained in the documents "disappointing, [but] the FAA remains focused on following a thorough process for returning the Boeing 737 MAX to passenger service."

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Designed by clowns who, in turn, are supervised by monkeys. That is how one Boeing employee described the development of the company's troubled 737 Max aircraft. It's just one of a number of remarkable comments made in internal documents and emails that have now been made public. NPR's David Schaper has been reading these documents and joins us. Hi, David.


GREENE: So we should say these documents you've been looking at date before the grounding of this kind of plane, you know, after the two deadly crashes. But I mean, as you go through it, what stands out?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, one thing that strikes me is the level of effort made by some Boeing officials and employees to deceive regulators and Boeing's customers. These would be the airlines who would fly the 737 Max in order to keep pilot training on what was essentially a new plane to a minimum and keep regulators from requiring what would be expensive and time-consuming simulator training for pilots. One says, quote, "I just Jedi mind-tricked these fools." This is the chief technical pilot in one exchange. I should be given $1,000 every time I take one of these calls. I save this company a sick amount of money. And he talks about he'll make them feel stupid if they try to require any additional training for pilots.

Another message by that same chief technical pilot seems somewhat remorseful. I still haven't been forgiven by God for the covering-up I did last year, referring to how they misled the FAA. And they're just dismissive, at times, of regulators and even ridicule them and, sometimes, ridicule their own colleagues. One of the other things that kind of stands out to me is how - that there are some employees who are trying to do the right thing, complaining about safety problems, complaining about the culture that prioritizes cost savings and the schedule over safety, yet they seem to be in the minority. One says the company has created a culture of good enough, which is an incredibly low bar. In one message - another message, these employees are concerned about the safety of the 737 Max. This is before the plane was even approved to fly passengers. He says, would you put your family on a Max simulator-trained aircraft? I wouldn't. And then the other employee responds, no.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, an employee saying they would not put their own family on an aircraft totally undermines any confidence in this aircraft. What is Boeing saying? I mean, they had to know it was in here, obviously, because they released this stuff.

SCHAPER: Well, you know, a Boeing official said that these communications were written by a small number of employees, primarily Boeing technical pilots and other personnel who were involved in the development and certification of the 737 Max, and also those who participated in simulator sessions. Now, some of these are the same employees who were sending other damaging emails and internal messages that had already been disclosed last year. But the company official is saying that the language that they use, the sentiments expressed in these communications are completely inconsistent with Boeing values, and the company is taking appropriate action, and they're just - the messages, though, speak to a broader culture and a broader problem that doesn't seem like the company responded in the right way.

GREENE: And, of course, all this happening as a new CEO comes in and takes over. A lot to deal with.

SCHAPER: Right. A new CEO's coming in on Monday and will have to tackle all of these problems head-on.

GREENE: NPR's David Schaper covering that story from Chicago this morning. Thanks, as always, David.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.