Just as Boeing seemed to be getting closer to having its upgrades to the 737 MAX flight controls approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) thus clearing the way for the jet to return to commercial service by year end, the crisis surrounding the MAX has been hit with fresh controversy. An exchange of internal messages from 2016 between two senior pilots suggests Boeing already knew about the drawbacks of the MCAS flight-control system at the time, prompting regulators to demand for an immediate explanation. The news comes as CEO Dennis Muilenburg faces increasing pressure before his testimony to the U.S. Congress at the end of October, 2019.
A series of internal messages on November 16, 2016, between two Boeing lead technical pilots on the 737 MAX program seem to indicate that the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) installed on the new jet behaved erratically during flight simulator sessions.
Not only that, but in the exchange of texts, first reported by Reuters on October 18, 2019, the MAX’s then-chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner, admits he might have “unknowingly” lied to the FAA about the behavior of the new flight-control system.
“MCAS is now active down to M. 2. It’s running rampant in the sim on me,” Forkner writes to his colleague Patrik Gustavsson, adding, “So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly).” To which, Gustavsson responds: “It wasn’t a lie, no one told us that was the case”.
“I’m levelling off at like 4000 ft, 230 knots and the plane is trimming itself like crazy. I’m like, WHAT?” Forkner continues. Gustavsson responds that he experienced similar patterns with MCAS during simulator trials, “but on approach.”
“Granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious,” Forkner writes, according to a transcript of the message chain between the two pilots. The conversation took place just several months before the aircraft was certified by the FAA and entered into service in May 2017.
U.S. regulators have blasted Boeing for not turning over the “concerning” message exchange in time. According to a statement by the FAA on October 18, 2019, the plane maker had known about the matter for several months. It had brought the document to the U.S. Department of Transport (DOT) only the day before.
“The FAA finds the substance of the document concerning. The FAA is also disappointed that Boeing did not bring this document to our attention immediately upon its discovery,” the agency’s statement reads, adding that it is “reviewing this information to determine what action is appropriate”.
In fact, according to the Seattle Times, Boeing provided the exchange to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) back in February 2019 – before the second fatal crash of the 737 MAX.
Upon learning of the existence of the document, the FAA Administrator Steve Dickinson wrote a scathing letter on October 18, 2019, directed at Boeing’s chief Dennis Muilenburg, ordering the company to provide an “immediate” explanation for the delay in disclosing the matter.
Controversy reaches Congress
Also released on October 18, 2019, were a set of damaging emails, which the FAA turned over to the U.S. Congress. In an email in January 2017, Forkner reportedly told the agency that the company would delete a reference to MCAS from the flight operator’s manual and training course “because it is outside the normal operating envelope,” Reuters reports. In another email to an FAA employee, dated November 2016, Forkner said he was working to “jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by FAA,” the news agency quotes him as saying.
Joining in on the choir of outburst on October 18, 2019, in a statement, the Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio described the message exchange between Forkner and Gustavsson as “shocking, but disturbingly consistent with what we’ve seen so far in our ongoing investigation of the 737 MAX, especially with regard to production pressures and a lack of candor with regulators and customers”.
“Equally disturbing is the fact that the second tranche of emails delivered by the FAA contain emails from a Boeing employee to an FAA employee equating the certification process for the 737 MAX with “jedi-mind” tricks and boasting that the Boeing employee “usually get[s] what I want,” indicating improper coziness between the regulator and the regulated,” DeFazio wrote in a letter to DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, upon learning the content of the emails brought by the FAA.
Boeing expresses regret
The fresh out-of-the-oven crisis comes at a crucial time for Boeing – Muilenburg is set to appear before Congress on October 30, 2019, where it is likely he will now be questioned about the revelations from Forkner’s emails and messages exchange. The fallout of the new controversy could derail the certification process of the MAX and influence the timeline for getting the plane back to service. And all of this comes after the Boeing board of directors stripped Muilenburg of his role as company chairman, as announced on October 11, 2019.
In response to the publication of the troubling message exchange, Boeing stated: “We understand and regret the concern caused by the release Friday of a Nov. 15, 2016 instant message involving a former Boeing employee, Mark Forkner, a technical pilot involved in the development of training and manuals. And we especially regret the difficulties that the release of this document has presented for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other regulators,” an official statement released on October 20, 2019, reads.
Adding to the pressure is the fact that Boeing is set to release its third quarter 2019 results on October 23, 2019. In the second quarter of 2019, the plane maker reported a loss of nearly $3 billion – the biggest in its history – as a result of the grounding of the 737 MAX. Boeing’s commercial aircraft deliveries have fallen further in Q3 2019, when the company delivered only 63 commercial jets, down 66.8% from the same period in 2018. How much of a financial toll Boeing has conceded will be evident in its upcoming financial results.