On Wednesday, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg will testify before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Over his shoulder will be family members of the 346 victims of the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, including the Massachusetts parents of Samya Stumo.
Sadly, we have been here before. In 2009, after 50 people died in the Colgan Air flight 3407 crash near Buffalo, N.Y, our committee worked in a bipartisan way to address safety issues raised by that crash, including pilot training and fatigue. The House went on to pass the bill in a 409-11 vote, paving its way to become law. That legislation is just one reason the United States has had an outstanding aviation safety record that people expect and deserve.
Congress must once again rise to the challenge to protect the flying public. That’s why, in the days after the second MAX crash, our committee launched an investigation into the design, development, and certification of the aircraft, asking the same questions so many others wanted to know: How were decisions made and why? While we don’t have all the answers yet, information from official government reports, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and our own ongoing investigation makes it increasingly clear that faulty technical designs, unrealistic assumptions about pilot response times, profit pressure, and a culture of concealment may have played a role in the tragic fate of the two 737 MAX accidents.
Hearing directly from Muilenburg will be key to our investigation, but to be clear, it won’t mark the end. There will still be many things that both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration must answer in the coming months that will help guide Congress on legislation that truly ensures proper firewalls between regulators and manufacturers, and enhances regulatory oversight.
In particular, our committee must know why a new feature that was installed in the MAX called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, was allowed to rely on only a single sensor. Modern aircraft are supposed to have redundancies so that a single point of failure can’t take down a plane.
We also need to know how Boeing presented MCAS to the FAA for approval, why the FAA did not fully understand the implications of this new system, why Boeing asked the FAA to remove any mention of MCAS from flight-crew operations manuals, and why the FAA agreed. These decisions meant that until the Lion Air catastrophe in Indonesia, 737 MAX pilots were unaware MCAS was on the plane.
Then there is the question of why both Boeing and the FAA assumed pilots would need only 4 seconds to both recognize and react to an MCAS malfunction. An outside panel of experts sharply criticized this assumption in recent weeks.
We also have serious questions about Boeing’s marketing of the 737 MAX. Years before the aircraft was FAA-certified, Boeing said the plane wouldn’t require simulator training for pilots already qualified on its predecessor aircraft, the 737 NG. At least one airline was offered a $1 million rebate per plane if pilots ended up not needing simulator training.
Underlying all of these questions has been production pressure felt by at least some Boeing employees, who believe deadlines trumped safety concerns. Boeing employees contacted our committee to raise this issue, and the committee was provided with an internal 2016 Boeing survey that found 39 percent of Boeing’s employees surveyed felt they had experienced “undue pressure.” Twenty-nine percent were concerned about “consequences” if they reported incidents.
Those numbers are extraordinarily troubling for an aircraft manufacturer. Safety, not production, must always come first. That’s what anyone who boards a plane expects and deserves — and ultimately, that’s a better business model, as cutting corners seems to have exacted a huge financial toll on a long-admired company, all of which may have been avoided if safety came first and production pressures were diminished.
Boeing has been an innovator and technical leader the world over for more than 100 years. But questionable designs, faulty assumptions, and concealing critical information from regulators and pilots will never be a formula for safety or success. Boeing and the FAA must both learn lessons from the 737 MAX tragedies, and Congress must play a role to ensure this never happens again.
Here in Congress, and especially at our committee, we must continue to press for answers, and we will do that on Wednesday when Muilenburg testifies.
Democratic US Representative Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.