Communications among Boeing employees involved with the 737 MAX, made public Thursday, have pushed the company’s reputation on Capitol Hill to a new low, sparking bipartisan anger and bringing Congress closer to reining in what some say has been lax federal oversight of plane manufacturers.
The emails and messages — which depict unnamed Boeing employees bragging about duping airlines, criticizing the MAX’s design as done by “clowns” and raising concerns about cost-cutting and schedule pressures — immediately prompted sharp bipartisan rebukes.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who chairs the aviation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, called the documents “deeply disturbing.”
“Boeing needs to explain to Congress why after multiple hearings and briefings the company continues to withhold correspondence critical to understanding what happened,” he added. “I’m angry — and every member of the flying public should be too.”
During a briefing with reporters on Friday, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subpanel, said that the collection of emails “shows that it’s not a matter of if the committee is going to act to change how airplanes and components that go into airplanes are certified,” but how.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said at the briefing that his panel isn’t done with an investigation yet, but that legislation would likely come before it is.
He has said that he wants to ensure that the FAA closely scrutinizes airplane systems that are considered safety critical. He also may target limits to the amount of times a plane can be certified as a derivative of an already existing design. This was the case with the MAX, which is a derivative of the 1960s-era 737 design.
Since two MAX planes crashed overseas, killing 346 people, attention has focused on how Boeing brought to market a jet with a problematic flight-control feature called MCAS, and why the FAA approved the plane to fly. In particular, critics have focused on a program Congress has repeatedly expanded that allows airplane manufacturers to perform much of the tasks that are required to certify an airplane as safe and whether the FAA’s oversight was tough enough.
Scott Hamilton, of aviation consultancy Leeham Co., said it’s unrealistic to expect Congress to completely revamp the way this delegation program works, but that he expects they will “do some walk-back of how liberal” it is.
“But the real issue here for me in terms of Capitol Hill is that Congress needs to add funding to the FAA so that it can hire more experts,” Hamilton said. “Until Congress … increases funding for the FAA to a substantial degree, it does not have the human resources or the muscle” to rein in the program.
“So to me, Congress has a good deal of culpability here, and I also know there’s no way Congress is going to accept that culpability,” he said.
Even some Republicans, who overall have been more reluctant to support wholesale changes to the way the FAA oversees aircraft certification, seem to be at a tipping point.
The top Republican on the Aviation Subcommittee, Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, said he had been leaning toward placing a significant part of the blame for the crashes on inadequate training regimens in other countries.
“I won’t say my mind was made up, but I certainly was leaning in the direction of, there were some significant training issues with some of the international carriers,” he told POLITICO. “This does put a little bit of a shadow on that.”
“This is the most serious data dump that I’ve seen so far,” Graves said. In previously disclosed messages between Boeing employees that also sparked a wave of bad headlines for Boeing and outrage from lawmakers, it was “at least arguable that maybe there was a renegade person, or somebody making a careless remark or what have you. But some of the things in this one, in my opinion, clearly cross over a line.”
“Whether there needs to be a legislative remedy or whether there’s an administrative fix on this, I think we could go either way potentially,” Graves said. “Obviously a law change has a little bit more standing.”
Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said in a statement Thursday that he had “very serious concerns” after seeing the messages. He said they show a “troubling disregard for safety among some at Boeing and raise questions about the efficacy of FAA’s oversight of the certification process.”
But Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), the top Republican on the House Transportation Committee who is a pilot with a commercial rating, wasn’t swayed. He cautioned that he hadn’t finished going over all the newly released emails, but indicated that his opinions haven’t changed.
Echoing previous statements, Graves said he thinks pilot error was a key factor in the crashes and that he believes the MAX is safe.
“Before, everybody wanted to talk about this cozy relationship between Boeing and the FAA,” he said. “And now it looks like there wasn’t a cozy relationship between Boeing and the FAA, which I've cautioned from the beginning: ‘Let's wait. Let's get all the information before we start jumping to conclusions.’ Now, according to these emails, there wasn't any relationship.”
During the briefing with reporters Friday, DeFazio said he plans to probe “how high up” the sentiments in the document dump went. He suggested that Boeing will attempt to “make scapegoats” of the people included in the documents and “pretend it didn’t come from on high, but it did.”
“They were under tremendous pressure from the beginning to be certain that this plane would not require pilots to have a high level of training — simulator training — to save money and make it more marketable. That wasn’t created by the rank and file. That came from high up in the Boeing corporation,” DeFazio said.
DeFazio also zeroed in on an email that contained minutes from a 2013 meeting stating that if the company cast its MCAS feature, which is now at the heart of the crash probes, as a “new function,” there could be “a greater certification and training impact.” Instead, the company encouraged that it be described as an “addition” to an existing system.
DeFazio contended that this was tantamount to “deliberately concealing the system.”
And, according to the documents released Thursday, a Boeing employee designated by the FAA to act in its stead on certain tasks concurred with the company's approach.
“The authorized representative, under the current system, is supposed to represent the public safety interest and the FAA,” DeFazio said. “And clearly, in this case, they did not. So the system is broken, and I’m determined that we’re going to fix that system.”
Jeff Guzzetti, a consultant who previously worked at the FAA, the Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board, said he was disappointed by the lack of professionalism at Boeing, at least during the time of the emails, and by the company's “failure to ensure that safety was a priority in their culture.”
“As I think back on my time at NTSB, IG and FAA, I was probably too naive, too idealistic about aviation safety professionals at Boeing and even to some extent at the FAA. And I just feel let down and disappointed that some of this was going on,” Guzzetti said.