WASHINGTON • Boeing's chief executive faced the grieving relatives of two deadly crashes of its 737 Max jet at an emotional congressional hearing this week, as US senators pummelled him with questions about whether the company should have grounded the plane before the second accident.
At times looking shaken, Mr Dennis Muilenburg on Tuesday said that if he could do it over again, he would have acted after the first crash, off the coast of Indonesia last October. "If we knew everything back then that we know now, we would have made a different decision," he testified.
He said Boeing officials had asked themselves "over and over" again why they did not ground the plane sooner.
"I think about you and your loved ones every day," Mr Muilenburg told the families, who at one point stood behind him holding up large photographs of the dead.
Mr Muilenburg acknowledged for the first time that he knew before the second crash that a top pilot had voiced concerns about the plane while it was in development. The admission will most likely lead to more questions about why Boeing did not act more decisively before that crash, of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, on March 10.
Two days after that crash, Mr Muilenburg called President Donald Trump to defend the safety of the Max. The plane was grounded, however, on March 13, although the United States waited longer than most other countries to act.
The two accidents killed 346 people and have thrown the company into crisis and roiled the global aviation industry.
Mr Muilenburg, who had spent weeks preparing for his appearance, was measured throughout more than two hours of testimony, which occurred on the anniversary of the crash of Lion Air Flight 610, in Indonesia. The mood in the hearing room was tense. Multiple senators asked Mr Muilenburg to address families of crash victims seated behind him.
The chief executive, who has been criticised for failing to convey sympathy after the crashes, apologised to the families directly in his opening remarks. "We are sorry," he said. "Deeply and truly sorry."
Mr Muilenburg was due to appear yesterday in front of the House transportation committee, which has been leading the congressional investigation into the 737 Max and is expected to adopt an even more adversarial stance.
During several tense exchanges on Tuesday, senators on the commerce committee sharply criticised Boeing's handling of the situation. Mr Muilenburg said in his opening remarks that the company had "made mistakes", and he vowed to redouble its focus on safety.
Boeing faces multiple federal investigations into the design of the plane, including a criminal inquiry led by the Justice Department.
Some of the most intense questioning concerned messages that a pilot central to the plane's development sent to a colleague in November 2016, months before the plane was certified by regulators.
The pilot, Mr Mark Forkner, said in the messages that he had "unknowingly" lied to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about the system, which was "running rampant" in the flight simulator and causing him trouble. The system, known as MCAS, ultimately contributed to both crashes. Boeing provided the messages to the Justice Department in February, though it did not give them to lawmakers or the FAA until this month.
Mr Muilenburg said he became aware of Mr Forkner's messages "prior to the second crash". He said he "didn't see the details of this exchange until recently". He added that Boeing was "not sure" what the pilot meant in the messages to his colleague and noted that the company had not been able to speak to Mr Forkner, who now works for Southwest Airlines.
"You're the CEO; the buck stops with you," said Senator Ted Cruz, adding: "How did you not in February set out a nine-alarm fire to say 'we need to figure out exactly what happened', not after all the hearings, not after the pressure but because 346 people have died and we don't want another person to die?"