Boeing Revelations Prompt Congressional Vow to Fix Oversight
The Boeing Co. logo hangs from an entrance to its factory in Sheffield, U.K. (Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg)

Boeing Revelations Prompt Congressional Vow to Fix Oversight

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(Bloomberg) -- Key House Democrats on Friday vowed to change how new airplane designs are approved by federal regulators after the release of a trove of damning internal Boeing Co. communications.

“The system is broken, and I am determined that we are going to fix that system,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Pete DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, told reporters Friday in Washington.

Boeing employees discussed deep unease with the 737 Max and the flight simulators used to train pilots on the new jetliner while also mocking senior managers and regulators in messages released by the manufacturer late Thursday.

The internal communications threaten to upend Boeing’s efforts to rebuild public trust in the 737 Max, which has been grounded since March after two crashes that killed a total of 346 people. That will add to the hurdles for David Calhoun, a longtime board member who will take over on Jan. 13 as chief executive officer after Dennis Muilenburg was ousted last month.

“This airplane is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys,” said one company pilot in messages to a colleague in 2016. The company provided the documents in December to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and lawmakers, who are investigating the 737 Max and the process that cleared it to fly.

Included in the documents were minutes from a 2013 meeting showing that Boeing employees decided to treat the flight control system linked to the fatal crashes, known as MCAS, in external communications as an addition to an existing system rather than a new one, while continuing to call the system MCAS internally. The minutes noted that treating MCAS as a new function may lead to additional training and certification burdens.

DeFazio pointed to another document showing a Boeing employee designated to act on behalf of the FAA approved a Boeing plan to keep references to MCAS out of 737 Max materials.

“We have here deliberate concealment over a number of years leading to two fatal crashes,” DeFazio said. That so-called designee at Boeing “is supposed to represent the public interest and the FAA. And in this case they clearly did not,” he said.

Representative Rick Larsen, the Washington Democrat who chairs the panel’s aviation subcommittee, said “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 it’s how we’re going to do that.”

Lawmakers in 2012 overwhelmingly passed and President Barack Obama signed a three-year reauthorization of the FAA’s authority that ordered sweeping changes to streamline the aircraft certification process. It specifically instructed the FAA administrator to consider how to expand the use of “designees,” or company employees deputized with the power to certify the safety of broad swaths of new planes and components on the agency’s behalf.

Larsen said Boeing doesn’t need to give up all its authority under the designee program -- but should lose some.

“We need to be very particular and scalpel-like in how we address this, but we have to address the problem,” Larsen said. “In my view, some of this needs to be pulled back from Boeing” and given to FAA.

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