Boeing Co Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg began the first of two days of testimony before politicians in the United States on Tuesday, facing tough questions about the crashes of two 737 MAX planes, which killed 346 people and sparked calls for reforms.
In an appearance that started at 10am (14:00 GMT) before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Muilenburg acknowledged major mistakes, according to written testimony released on Monday.
“We have learned and are still learning from these accidents, Mr. Chairman. We know we made mistakes and got some things wrong,” the testimony reads.
The hearing – the highest-profile congressional scrutiny of commercial aviation safety in years – adds pressure on a newly rejigged Boeing senior management team fighting to repair trust with airline customers and passengers shaken by an eight-month safety ban on its 737 MAX following the crashes.
Muilenburg’s testimony marks the first time Boeing has appeared at a hearing on Capitol Hill in the year since the first fatal crash, as the company had previously resisted earlier requests to testify.
Asked ahead of the hearing if he would resign, Muilenburg said that was “not where my focus is”. He also declined to say whether he or the board were considering his resignation after the plane returns to service.
For months, Boeing had largely failed to acknowledge blame, instead vowing to make a “safe plane safer”. Tuesday’s hearing represents Boeing’s broadest acceptance of responsibility that it made mistakes.
Boeing on Tuesday also ran full-page advertisements in major newspapers expressing condolences to the families and loved ones of those killed in the crashes.
Senator Roger Wicker, the committee chairman, said he would address families of the crash victims at Tuesday’s hearing. “I promise to their loved ones that we will find out what went wrong and work to prevent future tragedies”.
Legislators also pressed Muilenberg about delays in turning over internal 2016 messages that described erratic behaviour of the software in a simulator.
On Monday, Muilenburg visited the Indonesian embassy in Washington, DC, to meet with the ambassador and “pay our respects to those lost on board Lion Air flight 610 on the first anniversary of the accident,” Boeing said in a statement.
Muilenburg, who was stripped of his title as Boeing’s chairman by the board this month, will also testify before the US House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on Wednesday.
Michael Stumo, the father of Samya Rose Stumo, who died in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash in March, said the victims’ families plan to hold up photos of “the loved ones we lost” to “make sure the focus is on that, rather than political or bureaucratic or engineering issues”.
He questioned why Boeing is only now adding safeguards to a flight control system known as MCAS that investigators have linked to both crashes.
“When you knew the MCAS system was part of the Lion Air crash, why didn’t you act to correct it immediately instead of still withholding information about it and blaming the pilots?” Stumo asked of Boeing.
Muilenburg told senators that Boeing is in the final stages of updating flight software to improve safety by adding redundancy – tying MCAS to a second sensor and second computer at all times, and reducing the system’s ability to push down a plane’s nose.
The Federal Aviation Administration is not expected to approve the 737 MAX’s ungrounding until December at the earliest. US airlines have cancelled flights into January and February because of the grounding.
In March, after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the plane was grounded worldwide.
Indonesian investigators reported on Friday that Boeing, acting without adequate oversight from US regulators, failed to grasp risks in the design of cockpit software on the 737 MAX, sowing the seeds for the October 29, 2018 Lion Air crash, which also involved errors by the airline workers and crew whose training did not cover the situation that led to the crash.
Muilenburg added that “regulators should approve the return of the MAX to the skies only after they have applied the most rigorous scrutiny, and are completely satisfied as to the plane’s safety. The flying public deserves nothing less.”