The Boeing 737 MAX airliner has been grounded in America since last March, and was grounded in many other countries before that, thanks to two tragic crashes, one an Ethiopian Airlines flight, and one an Indonesian Lion Air flight that killed 189 people. That crash was blamed partially on a new flight-control system installed on the planes, and partially on poor pilot training and an unfamiliarity with the new system. Newly-released internal Boeing documents show that when Lion Air requested more training on these new systems, they were insulted by Boeing employees.
The new flight control system is known as the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) and is designed to help combat a flying condition known as “stalling,” where the plane can lose lift if its angle of attack—the angle between the wing and the surrounding airflow—is too high.
In practice, the MCAS system seems to have malfunctioned and caused the plane to pitch its nose downward when not needed, and the system was confusing to override when it failed, which relates directly to the lack of proper training for pilots.
Boeing had been touting the 737 MAX as an aircraft that would require minimal to no new training for pilots, which would save airlines a lot of money. This was a major selling point of the new plane.
Boeing provided the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration with over 100 pages of internal documentation relating to the 737 MAX situation, and a number of those documents show that Boeing employees were not supportive of airline requests for more training for the aircraft.
Documents were released to the media with redactions, but Bloomberg was able to get unredacted documents from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and those documents called out Lion Air by name.
Bloomberg’s article today included quotes from internal emails from Boeing employees discussing the requests for more training on the 737 MAX’s new systems, and, um, they don’t really come off terribly well for Boeing. Here’s an example email from 2017:
“Now friggin Lion Air might need a sim to fly the MAX, and maybe because of their own stupidity. I’m scrambling trying to figure out how to unscrew this now! idiots,”
OK, maybe that’s just one, isolated example of a high-strung Boeing employee who’s maybe kind of an arsehole. Then again, maybe not, as this was a response from a colleague:
“WHAT THE F%$&!!!! But their sister airline is already flying it!”
Do all Boeing employees freak out this quickly? If so, the walls of their cubicles must look like Jackson Pollack paintings from all the spit-taken coffee. And can’t any of them actually use proper profanity?
More critically, though, it’s unreal that a company manufacturing a complex aircraft would express such contempt and shock that pilots would want training on the updated systems. You’d think it’d welcome that, as it would help guarantee the new systems are being properly used, and would prevent, oh, terrible crashes, which would prevent grounding aircraft, loss of sales, losing money, all that.
And, oh yeah, not killing anyone.
This dismissive attitude toward an airline attempting to prepare their pilots to be as safe as possible is incredibly disturbing. Also disturbing is that Boeing’s pressure worked, with Lion Air eventually accepting that it wouldn’t need additional training.
Bloomberg was unable to get a comment from Boeing, but a message sent from Greg Smith, Boeing’s interim CEO, to Boeing employees, addressed the documents:
“These documents do not represent the best of Boeing. The tone and language of the messages are inappropriate, particularly when used in discussion of such important matters, and they do not reflect who we are as a company or the culture we’ve created.”
Yeah, no shit, Greg. No wonder you make the big bucks.
The U.S. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee investigation is still ongoing. Chair Peter DeFazio issued a statement about the released emails, pointing out that these were not isolated issues with isolated parts or employees:
“These newly-released emails are incredibly damning. They 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. I can only imagine how painful it must be for the families of the 346 victims to read these new documents that detail some of the earliest and most fundamental errors in the decisions that went into the fatally flawed aircraft.
“For nearly 10 months, my Committee has been investigating the design, development and certification of the MAX, and in that time, our investigation has uncovered multiple, serious problems with Boeing’s decision-making and the priority that was placed on production and profit over safety. But these new emails bring my concerns to an entirely new level. They show a coordinated effort dating back to the earliest days of the 737 MAX program to conceal critical information from regulators and the public. While it is also clear from these emails that the problems did not merely stem from a lone Boeing employee who uses colourful language in his communications, I have reiterated my request for an interview with former Boeing 737 MAX Chief Technical Pilot Mark Forkner to his attorneys, and I expect to hear from them at the earliest possible date.”
We have reached out to Boeing for comment, and here’s what it provided:
Boeing statement on documents provided today to Congress:
In December, Boeing proactively brought these communications to the FAA’s attention in furtherance of the company’s commitment to transparency with our regulator and strong safety oversight of our industry. We also provided copies to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in recognition of their oversight functions. These documents have been released publicly at the encouragement of Chairman DeFazio and Chairman Wicker.
Some of these communications relate to the development and qualification of Boeing’s MAX simulators in 2017 and 2018. These communications contain provocative language, and, in certain instances, raise questions about Boeing’s interactions with the FAA in connection with the simulator qualification process.
Having carefully reviewed the issue, we are confident that all of Boeing’s MAX simulators are functioning effectively. The qualification activities referenced in these communications occurred early in the service life of these simulators. Since that time, both internal and external subject matter experts have repeatedly tested and qualified the simulators at issue.
Indeed, more than twenty regulatory qualifications of MAX simulators, performed by the FAA and multiple international regulators, have been conducted since early 2017. The specific Miami simulator that was used for the early qualification tests has been re-evaluated six times during this time period. The simulator software has been constantly improving during this time, through repeated cycles of testing, qualification, and revision of the software code.
These communications do not reflect the company we are and need to be, and they are completely unacceptable. That said, we remain confident in the regulatory process for qualifying these simulators.
In the context of providing these communications to the FAA, and having carefully considered the FAA’s perspective on these matters, we also decided to provide additional documents that were identified in the course of legal reviews of the 737 MAX program. We provided these documents to the FAA and Congress as a reflection of our commitment to transparency and cooperation with the authorities responsible for regulating and overseeing our industry. We welcome, and will fully support, any additional review the FAA believes is appropriate in connection with any of these matters, as well as the continued involvement of the relevant congressional committees with these issues.
We regret the content of these communications, and apologise to the FAA, Congress, our airline customers, and to the flying public for them. We have made significant changes as a company to enhance our safety processes, organisations, and culture. The language used in these communications, and some of the sentiments they express, are inconsistent with Boeing values, and the company is taking appropriate action in response. This will ultimately include disciplinary or other personnel action, once the necessary reviews are completed.