Editor’s note: An earlier version of this report carried a headline that mischaracterized a Boeing official’s statement regarding federal oversight. The official rejected calls for an overhaul of the company’s airplane development process, not its work with regulators. The headline has been corrected.
RENTON, WASH. ― Boeing executives on Wednesday defended the safety of the company’s 737 Max commercial jetliner as it met with representatives from a broad swath of the global aviation industry.
In its most detailed briefing yet, Boeing executives took a conciliatory tone about the loss of life from two deadly crashes involving the 737 Max. But the company rejected calls to overhaul its aircraft development process. It also offered more information about software and training fixes it is planning to roll out.
Officials from the Chicago-based aerospace giant said the 737 Max was the culmination of 50 years of aircraft development in which safety has been the first priority. The executives also defended the airplane safety certification process that Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration have in place, an issue that is the subject of congressional inquiries, a Department of Transportation audit and a criminal probe by the Department of Justice.
When asked whether the company needed to make changes to its airplane development process, a Boeing executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “The process that we follow with our regulators has continued to lead to safer and safer airplanes and safer and safer operations over time.”
He added: “Right now I would be very careful about indicting any part of that process until we know more about the specifics of either one of these accidents. In general the process has worked and continues to work, and we see no reason to overhaul the process.”
After publication of this story, Gordon Johndroe, a company spokesman, said the Boeing executive was referring to the company’s internal “airplane development process and its long track record for producing safe airplanes” not the safety certification process with regulators.
“Boeing would not ‘reject’ oversight or other enhancements the aviation community agreed would improve safety, and no representative of Boeing suggested otherwise. As we said earlier this week, we look forward to working with all regulators to advance our shared goal of an aviation industry that is safe and trusted by the flying public,” Johndroe said.
The gathering here in this city, which is just a few miles south of downtown Seattle, took place in an office park near Boeing’s 737 assembly plant.
Mike Sinnett, Boeing vice president of engineering and chief project engineer for the 737 program, said the company had been “deeply affected by the tragic loss of life” in Ethiopia.
"We are going to do everything we can to make sure that accidents like this never happen again,” Sinnett told a packed room of 67 media professionals.
The statement echoed one from chief executive Dennis Muilenburg in the days after the Lion Air Max 8 crash in Indonesia in October.
Safety concerns over the 737 Max emerged around the world after March 10 when a Boeing Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed minutes after takeoff, killing 157. It came just months after another Max 8 crashed off the coast of Indonesia under similar circumstances, killing 189. The FAA concluded, based on satellite data and evidence from the wreckage, that the two accidents had enough in common that global fleets of the Max 8 should be grounded.
At issue is a Boeing decision to add a flight control system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, into the 737 Max 8 without detailing it in pilot training. The possibility that MCAS, in combination with faulty data fed in through external sensors, could cause pilots to lose control at a critical moment has shaken the confidence of global regulators. Pilots were concerned that they did not have enough information about how to override MCAS.
Sinnett on Wednesday called the 737 a tried-and-tested aircraft with safety standards honed through decades of improvements.
“The 737 is a safe airplane,” Sinnett said. “The 737 family is a safe airplane family, and the 737 MAX builds on that history of safety that we have seen for almost 50 years.”
The briefing, before a phalanx of television cameras, occurred before the company met with more than 200 pilots, technical leaders, airline representatives and regulators ― all of whom have a stake in the 737 Max, which has been grounded in the United States, Europe and China for almost two weeks.
Boeing is working to drum up support for a flight control system overhaul and a new pilot training regimen that it hopes will allay safety concerns raised by pilot groups and others. It plans to submit the final software fixes to the FAA for review this week, something that could hasten the process of lifting the FAA grounding order.
Sinnett, an aerospace engineer, described highly technical updates to the 737 MAX’s flight control systems. He stressed that the electric trim process that is part of the automated MCAS system can be overridden by pilots seeking to take manual control of the aircraft, something that has concerned pilot groups.
He detailed a set of new flight control features in which an alert will appear at the bottom of the pilots’ display screen when two of the plane’s external sensors are capturing different measurements, something that could indicate faulty data.
Sinnett also said that, under the new system, pulling on the plane’s control column “will always be able to override MCAS inputs with sufficient maneuvering capability that the plane can still climb,” addressing a criticism raised by pilots in early November.
The company is also rolling out additional training for 737 Max pilots. Under current rules, pilots have to take an intensive 21-day training regimen. But once a pilot is completes that 737 course, the process for graduating to a newer 737 model is relatively short: Despite substantial changes to the plane’s engine size and placement, and the addition of the MCAS flight control system, training for the 737 Max had consisted primarily of a roughly hour-long, computer-based course.
The training for the 737 MAX now will consist of another brief computer-based training course that walks pilots through how the MCAS system operates, as well as additions to pilot manuals and a supplemental pilot bulletin. Though the new training is not yet finalized, two pilots familiar with Boeing’s discussions said the additional computer-based course would take only 15 minutes. It is up to airlines to decide whether pilots should train on flight simulators specific to the 737 Max.
“All 737 Max pilots will need to complete this training prior to engaging in the 737 Max,” Sinnett said.
While Boeing hosted its meetings in Renton, lawmakers on Capitol Hill held a Senate hearing on aviation safety and oversight. Among those testifying were Daniel K. Elwell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Calvin L. Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
Several foreign airlines expecting 737 MAX deliveries, including Virgin Australia, the United Arab Emirates’ FlyDubai, and India’s SpiceJet, said they sent representatives to Renton.
“Virgin Australia will be sending two of its most senior flight operations team members to Seattle for an information session on the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, and we look forward to hearing what Boeing has to say,” a Virgin Australia spokeswoman said. “We remain firm in our position that we won’t receive any new aircraft into our fleet until we are completely satisfied with their safety.”
American Airlines, United and Southwest — the three U.S. carriers that were flying 737 Max 8 or 9 jets at the time they were grounded — also said company officials would be present.
“[Southwest Airlines] is eager to hear Boeing’s update as we await additional guidance from the FAA,” spokeswoman Brandy King said Tuesday.
Analysts say the financial toll on Boeing and its airline customers could grow as the crisis goes on. Boeing has suspended all future deliveries of the 737 Max 8 and 9 for as long as the grounding order is in place. In a worst-cast scenario, analysts estimate the grounding order could cost the company $5 billion.
Those with future orders are waiting on a resolution. WestJet, which has two Max deliveries expected later this year, said it sent pilots to the Renton meeting Wednesday.
“As the duration of the Max grounding is still unknown, if our next delivery is before the grounding is lifted, we will not take the aircraft,” a WestJet spokesman said Tuesday. “However, if the grounding has been lifted and the aircraft is approved for reentry into service by all relevant regulatory bodies, we will take all deliveries as intended.”
Boeing and the FAA have been working on the software and training fixes for months, but it is unclear why both organizations waited until after a second crash to publicly commit to them.
A Boeing official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said the company has used lab and flight simulators to test how the new software would work in different scenarios, all of it in close coordination with FAA officials. Boeing flight-tested the software on a Boeing jet on Feb. 7 and again on March 12, the person said.
“Test pilots flew different maneuvers and flight conditions that exercised various aspects of the software update,” the Boeing executive said.
The second test came two days after a second Max 8 jet crashed, this time in Ethiopia.
MacMillan reported from Washington.