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Boeing CEO faces hard questions from Congress over safety of 737 Max, corporate priorities

Boeing’s 737 Max jets have yet to resume flying after a pair of deadly crashes in the past year sparked broad scrutiny of Boeing’s corporate practices and the FAA certification process. Now, the company’s CEO is on Capitol Hill for two days of hearings about safety and accountability. John Yang talks to David Shepardson of Reuters about the “moving” presence of bereaved family members in the room.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Boeing's 737 Max planes have yet to return to the skies worldwide. Governments, airlines and passengers all remain concerned about the airplane's safety issues, after a pair of crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia last year.

    The investigations have opened a window into much bigger questions about Boeing and its larger culture when it comes to safety and certification of new planes.

    Its CEO came to Capitol Hill for the first of two days of hearings about accountability.

    And, as John Yang tells us, he was in the crosshairs.

  • Man:

    Go ahead and hold up the photographs that you brought.

  • John Yang:

    A year to the day after the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, some of the most powerful witnesses at today's hearing didn't speak at all, families of the 346 people killed in two crashes of Boeing 737 Maxes five months apart.

    They were there with photos of their loved ones, as Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg faced the Senate Commerce Committee.

    He began with an apology to the families.

  • Dennis Muilenburg:

    On behalf of myself and the Boeing company, we are sorry, deeply and truly sorry.

  • John Yang:

    Senators from both parties slammed Muilenburg with questions of safety and accountability. Some flatly accused him of outright deception.

    He was asked whether Boeing withheld damaging information about the automated flight control system known as MCAS that's been blamed for the crashes.

    Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut:

  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.:

    Boeing came to my office shortly after these crashes and said they were the result of pilot error. Those pilots never had a chance.

  • Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.:

    There are a lot of reasons an airplane can go down, but safety shouldn't be one of them.

  • John Yang:

    Senators showed little patience with Muilenburg, as in this exchange with Democrat Jon Tester of Montana.

  • Dennis Muilenburg:

    We share — we share your focus on safety. And I can confidently say that. That is our number one priority at the company.

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    OK, cool, but we failed in this case. And there's a whole bunch of people back there that are going through incredible anguish because we failed.

  • John Yang:

    Recently disclosed documents show a Boeing test pilot complained in November 2016 that the system was running rampant in simulator tests.

    Today, Muilenburg indicated he knew about that after the first crash, but Boeing didn't hand over the documents to investigators until much later.

    Republican Ted Cruz of Texas:

  • Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas:

    You are 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?

  • John Yang:

    After the hearing, family members said Muilenburg's apology was too little, too late.

  • Clariss Moore:

    I was hoping today that — coming here, that he will at least answer some questions that, why he didn't ground the plane five months after the Lion crash?

    Because, if he did, my daughter would still be here.

  • John Yang:

    Muilenburg is going to be back in the hot seat tomorrow, this time in front of the House Transportation Committee.

    David Shepardson is the transportation reporter for Reuters. He covered today's hearing.

    David, thanks for being with us.

    We saw in that piece how angry the senators were. What did Muilenburg seem to be trying to accomplish at the hearing? And how successful was he?

  • David Shepardson:

    Well, look, clearly, they have moved beyond the initial message of just, we're going the make a safe plane safer.

    He did acknowledge mistakes, that the company did fail to disclose those text messages were referenced and didn't disclose to the FAA about a sensor indicator light. But, in general, he stayed away from a lot of the specific questions that the senators had, raising, did they make critical mistakes during that 2016 time frame in the development of MCAS and the certification of the airplane?

  • John Yang:

    How badly was his credibility hurt on that issue of the text messages from the pilot, the test pilot, saying that the system was sort of running rampant in the simulator years, months before the crashes?

  • David Shepardson:

    Well, look, that's angered just about everybody.

    And the Federal Aviation Administration said, why did you wait months to turn this over, when you handed it over to the Justice Department in February?

    And it really goes back to the senators' anger is over a number of different buckets. First, there is the issue of, did they properly design the plane MCAS? And we now know that that anti-stall system didn't have the safeguards that the FAA is demanding that it have in order to return to service.

    The second issue is, did Boeing do enough between first crash, Lion Air, and the second crash in March? And why didn't those concerns that have now been raised in these text messages and other things, why didn't that raise, as Senator Cruz said, immediate alarms? Why didn't they take further actions before March?

    And then finally the issue of, why did it take so long after March to turn over that material?

  • John Yang:

    A lot of questions also about the process of approving this aircraft as airworthy to fly.

    A lot of talk about the coziness between the regulators and the regulated, the industry. Is Congress likely to do something about that, do you think?

  • David Shepardson:

    Well, they're going to be shifting on a dime if they do, because, remember, as recently as October of 2018, just before this crash, the Congress moved to give more power and authority to airlines, to the manufacturers to do more of the work.

    So, in this case, I don't think we are going to see immediate action. Everyone on both sides of the aisle agree that changes need to be made. Reports have suggested the FAA is understaffed, and some of the officials don't have enough experience, and that Boeing employees feel undue pressure to get these planes certified faster.

    So, I do think you're going to see some reforms, but there's still the investigation into Ethiopian Airlines. There's also other reports. And the FBI and the Department of Justice are still investigating.

  • John Yang:

    You were in the committee room today.

    What was the impact, what was the effect of having those families in the room and having them stand and show the pictures of their loved ones?

  • David Shepardson:

    It was incredibly moving.

    I mean, remember, many of these family members are still deeply sad. And they're walking around with open wounds from losing family members.

    There is a father who lost his entire family in the Ethiopian crash. And when they stood up, you really could hear a pin drop in that room. And there was another moment when Mr. Muilenburg left the hearing.

    And one of the family members said, "You should be saying sorry to us directly."

    And he turned to the mother of a young woman who died and said, "I'm sorry."

    Clearly, Boeing is trying to show more contrition. He met with the Indonesian ambassador last night to express more sympathies.

    But this is not it by a long shot. There are still more reports. There is another rough day of hearings ahead. And the question is, will this be enough for the families? And there are still the lawsuits to be resolved.

  • John Yang:

    David Shepardson of Reuters, thank you so much.

  • David Shepardson:

    Thanks.

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