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Boeing mounts 15-minute defense of 737 Max as grounding drags on

Apr 30 2019 07:00
Julie Johnsson, Bloomberg
An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8, on a flight

An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8, on a flight from Miami to New York City, comes in for landing at LaGuardia Airport on Monday morning, March 11, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg defended a software system linked to two deadly 737 Max crashes at the planemaker’s annual meeting. But he left unanswered a key question: whether the original design was fatally flawed.

Grilled at a 15-minute media briefing after the shareholder gathering, the CEO refused to concede that the so-called MCAS software was defective and said Boeing followed appropriate protocols in designing it. The system, which was activated by a single erroneous sensor reading in both crashes, remains a focus for accident investigators as well as Congressional and criminal probes.

“There’s a chain of events. There are multiple contributing factors,’’ Muilenburg told reporters Monday, saying the company’s original safety analysis included pilot actions. “We’re going to break that chain.’’

For all the intense focus on the crashes, the CEO’s comments added little to public understanding of the 737 Max disasters in Indonesia and Ethiopia, which killed 346 people in a span of five months. The gaps in Boeing’s narrative have stoked one of the biggest crises in the company’s 102-year history while irritating key airline customers and leaving family members of victims searching for the truth.

‘No Full Account’

“Boeing has given no full account,” said Tarek Milleron, whose niece, Samya Stumo, died in the Ethiopian Airlines accident last month.

Milleron stood in the driving rain outside the Boeing gathering, holding up photos including one of his niece. Stumo was also a relative of consumer activist Ralph Nader.

“They need to open up and reveal the chain of events inside their company that led to these crashes,” said Milleron, who also called on more information from regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration. “That’s where the truth resides, in the relationship between Boeing and the FAA and in Boeing’s own process. They had a very powerful sales and marketing drive and they misrepresented their product.”

Muilenburg opened the annual meeting with a moment of silence for the victims and repeatedly vowed to reinforce the planemaker’s integrity and safety in the wake of the accidents. Boeing has studied both crashes as well as its own design processes, the CEO said.

Software Update

He underscored the effort Boeing is putting into revamping the software, a step needed to get the single-aisle workhorse flying again. The aircraft has been grounded since shortly after the second accident, which occurred March 10.

The Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System misfired and repeatedly pressed the nose of the planes down until flight crews lost control of both doomed aircraft. As the company starts planning to return the 737 Max to service and to ensure parked aircraft are safe to fly, it will need to rebuild trust with consumers, Muilenburg said.

The manufacturer’s top engineers and technicians have been working on a technical fix for MCAS, which the company plans to present to regulators after U.S. officials conduct a certification flight in the next week or two. The company has redesigned computer-based training for pilots and is creating flight-simulator training to brush up their skills, he said.

Resignation Question

Asked at the media briefing if he had considered resigning in the wake of the crashes, Muilenburg didn’t respond directly.

“The important thing here again is that we’re very focused on safety,” he said. “I can tell you that both of these accidents weigh heavily on us as a company.’’

Without a full accounting of design decisions by Boeing’s flight-control engineers, there’s much confusion and uncertainty over the extent of the Max’s flaws.

“In the absence of them confessing the flaw here, then any narrative is valid in the minds of people,” aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia said before Muilenburg’s remarks.

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