Boeing’s chief executive declined to endorse specific reforms to bolster safety oversight of the aerospace giant during a sometimes angry grilling in his first appearance before Congress since two 737 Max crashes killed 346 people.

Several senators pressed Dennis Muilenburg on possible changes to the so-called delegation program in light of lapses that occurred in the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification of the 737 Max. While Muilenburg said the company would review reforms proposed by Congress, he repeatedly defended the company’s ability to sign off on aircraft designs.

Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg at the U.S. Chamber of Commerces Aviation Summit in Washington on March 7. Bloomberg/Anna Moneymaker

Lawmakers are scrutinizing a longstanding FAA practice that deputizes company employees to issue safety approvals on new aircraft designs on the agency’s behalf. Muilenburg said drawing on the technical expertise of the company’s engineers helps streamline the approval process and has led to safety improvements, while adding that he welcomes government oversight and would be open to changes.

“I agree with the focus in that area,” Muilenburg told the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday. “The delegated authority process, as it’s structured, we do think has contributed to safety in the industry.”

Under the direction of Congress, FAA has repeatedly expanded the ability of companies to sign off on aircraft designs. At Boeing, the company directly oversees a pool of engineers who are deputized to act in behalf of FAA. That program is called Organization Designation Authorization.

FAA engineers were involved early in the development of the 737 Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System implicated in both crashes. But the agency later handed approvals to designees at Boeing. While the agency retains ultimate authority, it wasn’t fully aware of changes to the system that made it more aggressive, reviews of the jet’s approval has found.


In both fatal crashes, faulty data from one of two angle-of-attack sensors, which measure the pitch of the plane against the oncoming stream of air, caused the MCAS to drive down the jet’s nose, which pilots struggled to counteract before ultimately entering a fatal dive.

John Hamilton, vice president and chief engineer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, acknowledged the company erred in how it tested MCAS, telling the committee’s top-ranking Democrat that the company “did test the MCAS uncommanded inputs to the stabilizer system, due to whatever causes was driving it, not specifically due to an AOA sensor.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., countered if he now thought that was wrong.

“In hindsight, senator, yes,” Hamilton replied.

“They’ve moved closer to a full apology, but some mistakes might not satisfy critics,” said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Boeing CEO’s remarks. “And Congress still doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal for a broader and more important conversation about the role of regulators and the resources they need.”

Sen. Ted Cruz took one of the hardest lines with Muilenburg, often raising his voice in heated questioning about what called “stunning” instant messages released recently in which a senior Boeing pilot told a colleague he’d unknowingly lied to regulators.


The Texas Republican who chairs of the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation panel read portions of the messages aloud and grilled Muilenburg about why the company only recently provided them to FAA and lawmakers, months after Boeing gave the correspondence to the Justice Department.

He also criticized Muilenburg over his admission that he’d only recently learned the details of the exchange.

“You’re the CEO. The buck stops with you. Did you read this document and how did your team not put it in front of you and run in with their hair on fire saying ‘We got a real problem here?”‘ Cruz said.

Muilenburg said he was made aware of “this kind of document” earlier this year and said he counted on lawyers to handle the situation appropriately.

When questioned about why the company didn’t seek to ground the jet after the first crash, Muilenburg said “I think about that decision over and over again.”

“If we knew then what we know now we would have made a different decision,” he said.


Several lawmakers, including Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee where Muilenburg will appear on Wednesday, have said they plans to introduce legislation to require more FAA involvement. Such an action could face difficulty because Congress may also have to fund additional positions at the agency for it to successfully do more oversight.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker opened the hearing promising family members, some of whom were in the chamber, that they would get to the bottom of what went wrong and keep it from happening again.

“Both of these accidents were entirely avoidable,” Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, said as he gaveled the hearing to order. “We cannot fathom the pain experienced by the families of those 346 souls who were lost.”

Roughly 20 family members of victims who died in the 737 Max crashes attended the hearing, where at one point they stood and held up large photos of their deceased loved ones that Muilenburg turned around to see.

The family members blasted Muilenburg after his testimony ended, saying that he didn’t accept responsibility for the company’s decision to continue flying the plane after the first 737 Max model crashed in October 2018.

A few wore pins with the words “axe the Max,” a saying promoted by the great uncle of one of the crash victims, consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

“I think we deserve the answer. We need the honesty. Why don’t you give that to us?” said Clariss Moore, mother of Ethiopian Airlines crash victim Danielle Moore, a 24-year-old Canadian youth volunteer.

Comments are no longer available on this story