Messages show staff unease over Boeing 737 Max

A Boeing 737 Max at the plane-maker's production facility in Renton, Washington. Some of the messages released on Thursday revealed efforts by Boeing to avoid making pilot simulator training - an expensive and time-consuming process - a requirement f
A Boeing 737 Max at the plane-maker's production facility in Renton, Washington. Some of the messages released on Thursday revealed efforts by Boeing to avoid making pilot simulator training - an expensive and time-consuming process - a requirement for the jet.PHOTO: REUTERS

Plane-maker releases internal exchanges which disparage the aircraft and show efforts to duck regulatory scrutiny

WASHINGTON • Boeing has released hundreds of internal messages that contained harshly critical comments about the development of the 737 Max, including one that said the plane was "designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys".

The messages, disclosed on Thursday, show attempts to duck regulatory scrutiny with employees disparaging the plane, the company, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and foreign aviation regulators.

In an instant messaging exchange on Feb 8, 2018 - when the plane was already in the air and eight months before the first of two fatal crashes - an employee asks another: "Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn't." The second employee responds: "No."

The 737 Max has been grounded since March last year after an Ethiopian Airlines flight nose-dived, just five months after a similar Lion Air crash. The two disasters killed 346.

In particular, some of the communications revealed efforts by Boeing to avoid making pilot simulator training - an expensive and time-consuming process - a requirement for the 737 Max.

The plane-maker just this week changed tack, saying it would recommend pilots do simulator training before they resume flying the 737 Max - a major shift from its long-held position that computer-based training was sufficient as the plane was similar to its predecessor, the 737 NG.

The release of the messages, which highlight an aggressive cost-cutting culture, is set to deepen the crisis at Boeing, which is struggling to get its best-selling plane back in the air and restore public confidence.

SAFETY CONCERNS

Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn't.

A BOEING EMPLOYEE, in an instant messaging exchange with a colleague on Feb 8, 2018, eight months before the first of two fatal crashes.

The FAA said, however, that the messages do not raise new safety concerns although "the tone and content of some of the language contained in the documents is disappointing".

Boeing said the communications "do not reflect the company we are and need to be, and they are completely unacceptable".

The disclosure, which Boeing said was in the interest of transparency with the FAA, prompted renewed outrage from US lawmakers and puts more pressure on Boeing's new chief executive officer David Calhoun to overhaul the company's culture when he takes the reins on Monday.

House Transportation Committee chairman Peter DeFazio, who has been investigating the Max, said the messages "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, even as its own employees were sounding alarms internally".

The US Justice Department has an active criminal investigation under way into matters related to the 737 Max plane.

Some of the messages pointed to problems with the simulators. Boeing said on Thursday it is confident "all of Boeing's Max simulators are functioning effectively" after repeated testing since the messages were written.

But the messages showed that Boeing was in the past doing all it could to lobby aviation regulators to avoid the need for airlines to train pilots in a simulator on the differences between the 737 Max and the 737 NG. "We'll go face to face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement," Boeing's 737 chief technical pilot said in a March 2017 e-mail.

Before the grounding, pilot training on the differences consisted of a one-hour lesson on an iPad and no time in the simulator, according to the union representing pilots at American Airlines.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2020, with the headline 'Messages show staff unease over Boeing 737 Max'. Print Edition | Subscribe