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Boeing Employees Mocked F.A.A. and ‘Clowns’ Who Designed 737 Max

From The New York Times

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The company expressed regret at the embarrassing communications it sent to investigators on Thursday, which included a comment that “this airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys.”

By Natalie Kitroeff

Boeing employees mocked federal rules, talked about deceiving regulators and joked about potential flaws in the 737 Max as it was being developed, according to over a hundred pages of internal messages delivered Thursday to congressional investigators.

“I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year,” one of the employees said in messages from 2018, apparently in reference to interactions with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The most damaging messages included conversations among Boeing pilots and other employees about software issues and other problems with flight simulators for the Max, a plane later involved in two accidents, in late 2018 and early 2019, that killed 346 people and threw the company into chaos.

The employees appear to discuss instances in which the company concealed such problems from the F.A.A. during the regulator’s certification of the simulators, which were used in the development of the Max, as well as in training for pilots who had not previously flown a 737.

“Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t,” one employee said to a colleague in another exchange from 2018, before the first crash. “No,” the colleague responded.

In another set of messages, employees questioned the design of the Max and even denigrated their own colleagues. “This airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys,” an employee wrote in an exchange from 2017.

The release of the communications — both emails and instant messages — is the latest embarrassing episode for Boeing in a crisis that has cost the company billions of dollars and wreaked havoc on the aviation industry across the globe. The Max has been grounded for nearly 10 months, after the two deadly crashes. A software system developed for the plane was found to have played a role in both accidents, and since then the company has been working to update the system.

There is still no indication when the Max might be cleared to fly again, as the company and regulators continue to discover new potential flaws with the plane.

The messages threaten to further complicate Boeing’s tense relationship with the F.A.A. Both the company and agency indicated Thursday that the messages raised no new safety concerns, but they echoed troubling internal communications among Boeing employees that were previously made public.

In several instances, Boeing employees insulted the F.A.A. officials reviewing the plane.

In an exchange from 2015, a Boeing employee said that a presentation the company gave to the F.A.A. was so complicated that, for the agency officials and even himself, “it was like dogs watching TV.”

Several employees seemed consumed with limiting training for airline crews to fly the plane, a significant victory for Boeing that would benefit the company financially. In the development of the Max, Boeing had promised to offer Southwest a discount of $1 million per plane if regulators required simulator training.

In an email from August 2016, a marketing employee at the company cheered the news that regulators had approved a short computer-based training for pilots who have flown the 737 NG, the predecessor to the Max, instead of requiring simulator training.

“You can be away from an NG for 30 years and still be able to jump into a MAX? LOVE IT!!” the employee says, following up later with an email noting: “This is a big part of the operating cost structure in our marketing decks.”

Requiring simulator training can be costly for airlines and even after the crashes, Boeing told the F.A.A. it was not necessary. It was not until Tuesday that Boeing said it would recommend simulator training for pilots who fly the Max.

Boeing on Thursday expressed regret over the messages. “These communications contain provocative language, and, in certain instances, raise questions about Boeing’s interactions with the F.A.A. in connection with the simulator qualification process,” the company said in a statement to Congress. “Having carefully reviewed the issue, we are confident that all of Boeing’s Max simulators are functioning effectively.”

“We regret the content of these communications, and apologize to the F.A.A., Congress, our airline customers and to the flying public for them,” Boeing added. “The language used in these communications, and some of the sentiments they express, are inconsistent with Boeing values, and the company is taking appropriate action in response. This will ultimately include disciplinary or other personnel action, once the necessary reviews are completed.”

The messages outraged several lawmakers, who saw a disregard for safety and broader problems with the culture at the company.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said in an interview that he would push for new congressional hearings to question Boeing leadership about the “astonishing and appalling” messages.

Boeing said that it notified the F.A.A. about the documents in December and that it had “not found any instances of misrepresentations to the F.A.A. with its simulator qualification activities,” despite the employee’s comment about “covering up” issues with the simulator.

Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the F.A.A., said in a statement that the messages did not reveal any new safety risks.

“Upon reviewing the records for the specific simulator mentioned in the documents, the agency determined that piece of equipment has been evaluated and qualified three times in the last six months,” Mr. Lunsford said. “Any potential safety deficiencies identified in the documents have been addressed.”

Mr. Lunsford added that, “while the tone and content of some of the language contained in the documents is disappointing, the F.A.A. remains focused on following a thorough process for returning the Boeing 737 Max to passenger service.”

The relationship between Boeing and the F.A.A. has been a complicating factor for the company as it works to persuade international regulators that the Max is ready to fly. Last month, Boeing fired its chief executive, Dennis A. Muilenburg, whose optimistic projections about the plane’s return to service created a rift with the regulator.

Stephen Dickson, the new chief of the F.A.A., has struck a more assertive tone in public comments about the Max, urging his employees to ignore outside pressure to quickly lift the plane’s grounding and telling Boeing that there is no set timetable for the Max to return.

In a meeting with Mr. Muilenburg last month, Mr. Dickson told the company not to make any requests of the regulator and to instead focus on completing the paperwork necessary for regulators to evaluate the update.

Last year, Boeing disclosed internal messages from 2016, in which a top pilot working on the plane told a colleague that he was experiencing trouble controlling the Max in a flight simulator and believed that he had misled the F.A.A.

“I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” the pilot, Mark Forkner, said to his colleague, Patrik Gustavsson.

Boeing did not inform the F.A.A. about the messages when the company first discovered them, waiting until about two weeks before Mr. Muilenburg was set to testify in front of Congress to send them to lawmakers. The conversation, which took place before the Max was approved to fly, angered key F.A.A. officials, who felt misled by the company, according to three people familiar with the matter.

After the congressional hearings, Boeing moved Mr. Gustavsson out of his role working on the certification of new planes

On Thursday, Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon who is leading the House investigation into the development of the 737 Max, called the newly released messages “incredibly damning.”

“They paint a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go to in order to evade scrutiny from regulators, flight crews and the flying public,” he added, “even as its own employees were sounding alarms internally.”

 

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