Boeing CEO emphasizes safety in first grilling by Congress on 737 MAX
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was grilled over the 737 MAX by Senators for the first time on Capitol Hill Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the Lion Air crash that took the lives of 189 passengers.
In Muilenburg's first appearance in front of Congress since the aircraft was grounded in March, he was questioned by members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation primarily on the safety of the aircraft and culture at Boeing, but also when it will return to service.
"We made mistakes and got some things wrong," he told Senators after expressing condolences to the 346 passengers lost on the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes. "We have developed improvements to the 737 MAX to ensure that accidents like these never happen again. We also are learning deeper lessons that will result in improvements in the design of future airplanes."
Related: Boeing maintains 737 MAX return in December
Both crashes of 737 MAX 8 aircraft have been attributed to a faulty maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, or MCAS, system that erroneously pushed the nose of the aircraft down in the minutes after takeoff.
Chicago-based Boeing has developed three fixes for MCAS, as well as other flight system software updates, as part of its effort to get the MAX flying again, said Muilenburg. Fixes include drawing angle-of-attack -- or the the angle the aircraft nose is pointing through the air -- data from two sensors instead of one, prohibiting MCAS from activating more than once in succession, and ensuring that a pilot can always overcome the system manually.
"We’re in the final stages of the process," said Muilenburg when asked how close Boeing was to seeking re-certification of the MAX from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and returning it to the sky. "The aircraft will return to service when it’s safe. This is not timeline driven.”
A week ago, Muilenburg and other Boeing executives told shareholders that they expect the FAA to re-certify the aircraft by December. However, they acknowledged then -- as with Senators today -- that the process was taking longer than anticipated.
The update came a day after the head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes Kevin McAllister was given the boot, and replaced by Stan Deal from the airframer's services business.
Airlines continue to face uncertainty over when the MAX will resume flying. American Airlines, United Airlines and WestJet have removed it through January, and Air Canada and Southwest Airlines through February.
Related: Southwest cautious with winter schedule as 737 MAX grounding drags on
Acknowledging the potential hesitancy travelers may have flying on the MAX when it returns to service, executives at both Southwest and United have said passengers booked on the aircraft can change to another flight without charge.
Muilenburg's comments Tuesday aimed to allay Senators' concerns over the safety of the MAX and Boeing's corporate culture, which is seen by many as rushing to get the aircraft flying at the expense of safety.
“The company, the board cannot prioritize profits over safety," said Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington during the hearing. "Safety always has to be job one.”