Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg stuck to his positions on the safety of the 737 MAX airplane today during a contentious annual shareholder meeting and news conference in Chicago.
Muilenburg took questions in a face-to-face public forum for the first time since last month’s grounding of the 737 MAX due to concerns raised by two catastrophically fatal crashes last October and this March.
At one point, a reporter asked Muilenburg whether he’d resign.
“My clear intent is to continue to lead on the front of safety and quality and integrity,” he replied. “That’s who we are as a company.”
Muilenburg said that he’s been talking with factory workers in Renton, Wash., and with Boeing test pilots over the past few weeks.
“To the core of our people, they care about this business and the safety of our airplanes,” he said. “That’s what I’m focused on.”
Investigations into October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia, and March’s Ethiopian Airlines crash in Ethiopia, have focused on an automatic flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.
The system was designed to replicate the operating conditions of previous-generation 737 planes on the 737 MAX, which is equipped with bigger jet engine. But preliminary findings suggested that during each fatal flight, spurious data from an angle-of-attack sensor repeatedly forced the plane into a steep dive.
Boeing had laid out procedures to regain control, but in the two tragedies, the procedures either weren’t followed to the letter or didn’t work.
Muilenburg resisted characterizing the MCAS issue as a design flaw or a mistake. Instead, he said the issue was a “link in the chain” that will be broken thanks to a software update that’s being tested for certification by the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulatory agencies around the world.
The process by which the 737 MAX was originally certified for flight in 2017 is currently under investigation by an internal Boeing team and the FAA, as well as by the Justice Department and the FBI. Muilenburg insisted that MCAS system “was designed per our standards” and followed proper certification procedures.
“We haven’t seen a technical slip or gap in terms of the fundamental design and certification of the approach,” Muilenburg told reporters. “That said, we know this is a link in both accidents that we can break. That’s a software update that we know how to do. We own it, and we will make that update, and this will make the airplane even safer going forward.”
During today’s meeting, Boeing shareholders voted down a proposal to remake the company’s chairmanship as an independent position that would rule out Muilenburg’s dual role as CEO and chairman.
Relatives of some of the victims of the 737 MAX crashes traveled to Chicago to take part in a news conference aimed at drawing attention to lawsuits being filed against Boeing. One of the speakers was Manant Vaidya, a Canadian of Indian descent who lost six family members in the Ethiopia crash.
Vaidya was sharply critical of Muilenburg’s comments.
“He said that all design and certifications were followed. At the end of day, if all certifications were done, how could the crash still have occurred?” he said. “I am completely lost right now. I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in the world.”
Over the weekend, a number of media outlets reported that some 737 MAX planes didn’t have an indicator known as a “disagree alert,” which might have given pilots an early indication that an angle-of-attack sensor was feeding bad data to the MCAS system. Today, Boeing provided a response to those reports:
“Boeing included the disagree alert as a standard feature on the MAX, although this alert has not been considered a safety feature on airplanes and is not necessary for the safe operation of the airplane. Boeing did not intentionally or otherwise deactivate the disagree alert on its MAX airplanes.
“The disagree alert was intended to be a standard, stand-alone feature on MAX airplanes. However, the disagree alert was not operable on all airplanes because the feature was not activated as intended.
“The disagree alert was tied or linked into the angle of attack indicator, which is an optional feature on the MAX. Unless an airline opted for the angle of attack indicator, the disagree alert was not operable. [The angle-of-attack indicator is a software-based information feature that’s distinct from the angle-of-attack sensor hardware. For more on the distinction, check out this earlier story.]
“On every airplane delivered to our customers, including the MAX, all flight data and information needed to safely operate the aircraft is provided in the flight deck and on the flight deck display. This information is readily accessible to pilots, and it always has been.
“The air speed, attitude, and altitude displays, together with the stick shaker, are the primary flight information indicators in the flight deck. All recommended pilot actions, checklists, and training are based upon these primary indicators, not on the AOA disagree alert or the angle of attack indicator.
“As the MAX safely returns to the air after the software modifications are approved and certified, all MAX production aircraft will have an activated and operable disagree alert and an optional angle of attack indicator. All customers with previously delivered MAX airplanes will have the ability to activate the disagree alert per a service bulletin to airlines.
“We are confident that when the MAX returns to the skies, it will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly.”
Also today, Boeing’s board of directors declared a quarterly dividend of $2.055 per share. For what it’s worth, Boeing’s shares finished the trading day down 0.46%, at $379.05.