Boeing Criticized for 737 Max Crisis at House Hearing

By David Gelles

ImageRelatives of Boeing crash victims attended a House hearing held by an aviation subcommittee on Wednesday.
Relatives of Boeing crash victims attended a House hearing held by an aviation subcommittee on Wednesday.CreditCreditAndrew Harnik/Associated Press

Boeing has “caused a global aviation crisis of trust,” the head of a pilots union said during a congressional hearing on Wednesday in which lawmakers, pilots and airline officials expressed frustration even as the company makes progress in returning its 737 Max jet to service.

Daniel F. Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing American Airlines pilots, said the fallout from two Max crashes that killed 346 people “will require global solutions to restore and bolster aviation’s global safety culture and reputation.”

The Max, Boeing’s best-selling jet, has been grounded since March, after a second crash in a matter of months. In the aftermath of those accidents — a Lion Air flight in Indonesia in October and then an Ethiopian Airlines flight — critics have found fault with the design, certification and rollout of the Max.

“These crashes are demonstrable evidence that our current system of aircraft design and certification has failed us,” Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who landed a plane in the Hudson River and is known as Sully, said in a statement.

Witnesses at the hearing, held by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s aviation subcommittee, also raised questions about whether the Federal Aviation Administration had ceded too much authority to companies like Boeing, which help certify their own planes.

“These tragic incidents and the revelations surrounding them have shaken the public trust in our entire aviation system due to the decisions made by Boeing during the original certification process, the slow and inadequate response in the wake of the loss of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, and the questions surrounding F.A.A. oversight throughout,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said in her prepared remarks.

No Boeing representatives testified at the hearing. Boeing said in a statement that it was working to regain the public’s trust.

“Safety is a shared priority, and we are working closely with our industry partners to learn from these tragedies, answer their questions, and take steps to re-earn people’s trust and ensure accidents like these never happen again,” the company said. “Boeing continues to work with global regulators and our airline customers as they determine training requirements.”

Boeing is working with the F.A.A. and other regulators to get the Max flying again. It has devised a software update that will modify the anti-stall system that contributed to both crashes. In the coming weeks, the F.A.A. is expected to take a Max outfitted with the new software for a test flight, setting in motion a process that could have the Max flying again in September.

There is not yet a reliable timetable, however. Several airlines have canceled their Max flights into early September.

Mr. Carey expressed frustration with Boeing over what he described as a rescinded invitation to train on a Max simulator. He said Boeing had invited pilots from his union to train on a full-motion 737 Max simulator in Miami, but then had withdrawn the offer.

“That’s somewhat upsetting to us,” Mr. Carey said.

Before the Allied Pilots Association supports the return of the Max, he added, “we would like our safety committee chairman and our safety committee and training experts to be permitted to fly the 737 Max simulator.”

Other witnesses had recently had time on the simulator, including Randy Babbitt, a former F.A.A. administrator, and Mr. Sullenberger.

In an interview before the hearing, Mr. Sullenberger said he had modeled the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights in the simulator and had been able to gain control both times. But at the hearing he expressed sympathy for the pilots of the two flights, noting that the Lion Air pilots did not even know that the anti-stall software existed.

“Even knowing what was going to happen, I could see how crews could have run out of time and altitude before they could have solved the problems,” he said.

ImageWitnesses at the hearing included the retired pilot Chesley B. (Sully) Sullenberger III and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
Witnesses at the hearing included the retired pilot Chesley B. (Sully) Sullenberger III and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.CreditMike Theiler/Reuters

Much of the hearing focused on the issue of whether foreign pilots lack adequate training. Some pilots, and some members of Congress, have suggested that better-trained pilots would have been able to avoid accidents.

But Mr. Sullenberger said he did not believe that better pilot training alone would have prevented the crashes.

“We are all subject to hindsight bias,” he said. “I think it’s unlikely that other crews would have had very different experiences or performed very differently than these flights, certainly prior to the first flight.”

“We shouldn’t be blaming dead pilots,” Mr. Sullenberger added. “We shouldn’t expect pilots to compensate for flawed designs.”

Mr. Carey concurred. “In this situation, I believe some crews would have recognized it in time to recover, and some would not have,” he said at the hearing.

“The members of A.P.A. are offended by remarks made by those who seem to blame the pilots killed in those two crashes,” Mr. Carey said. “Vilifying non-U.S. pilots is disrespectful and not solution-based, nor is it in line with a sorely needed global safety culture that delivers one standard of safety and training.”

Witnesses also criticized Boeing’s design of the anti-stall system, known as MCAS. The system was originally intended for use only in limited circumstances, but Boeing expanded its power and use cases late in the design of the Max.

“It is clear that the original version of MCAS was fatally flawed and should never have been approved,” Mr. Sullenberger said, adding that it was made too powerful and relied on only one sensor, creating a single point of failure.

Mr. Babbitt, the former F.A.A. administrator, also criticized Boeing for not informing pilots about the anti-stall system. When Boeing introduced the Max, pilots were not made aware of the new system, and those who were already certified to fly older versions of the 737 were authorized to fly the Max after taking a short course on their iPads.

Mr. Carey said that even as Boeing prepared to return the Max to service, his union had reservations about the training procedures.

“We remained concerned about whether the new training protocol, materials and method of instruction suggested by Boeing are adequate to ensure that pilots across the globe flying the Max fleet can do so in absolute, complete safety,” he said.

A day before Boeing faced the criticism in Washington, it got a huge boost during the Paris Air Show, where IAG said it intended to buy 200 Max jets. IAG, the parent company of British Airways, added that it had “negotiated a substantial discount from the list price,” which is $117 million to $131 million each.

Boeing has been reaching out to airlines, flight attendants and regulators in recent months, hoping to repair its battered reputation.

“Our union has witnessed a chastened tone from Boeing and what appears to be a real desire to regain trust,” Ms. Nelson said.

Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy for Airlines for America, a trade group representing airlines, said airlines were eager to get the Max back into service.

“We are confident that, once certified by the F.A.A., the proposed enhancements will support the safe operation of the Max — making the aircraft one of the safest in the sky,” she said.

David Yaffe-Bellany contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: Pilots and Lawmakers Attack Boeing’s Actions In the 737 Max Crisis. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe