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Family members of those who died aboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 hold photographs of their loved ones as Dennis Muilenburg (R), President and CEO of the Boeing Company, and John Hamilton (L), Vice President and Chief Engineer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, testify at a hearing in front of congressional lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on October 30, 2019.

Family members of those who died aboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 hold photographs of their loved ones as Dennis Muilenburg (R), President and CEO of the Boeing Company, and John Hamilton (L), Vice President and Chief Engineer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, testify at a hearing in front of congressional lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on October 30, 2019. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Buffeting Boeing CEO’s Rope-a-Dope in Congress

Ralph Nader

This past week, Boeing’s deadly 737 MAX crashes were the focus of two back-to-back hearings – one in the Senate and one in the House. In the House Transportation Committee hearing, at least 50 Democrats and Republicans criticized Dennis Muilenburg’s mismanagement and implied criminal negligence. Muilenburg’s actions allowed Boeing’s marketeers to overrule Boeing’s engineers so that Boeing could circumvent FAA’s safety oversight, which had already been diminished by the Congress.

These hearings were held because of efforts by the families of the victims aboard preventable airplane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. Family members attended the hearings, holding up large signs with photos of their lost loved relatives. There were 346 fatalities in two crashes driven down by stealth, faulty software installed to address, what Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger called, the reduction of the “aircraft’s natural aerodynamic stability in certain conditions.”

The hearings were held in a packed room, full of media members, staffers, lobbyists, and citizen activists. House lawmakers questioned Muilenburg and his chief engineer, John Hamilton, for over five hours, during which the hugely compensated CEO made over $75,000 for pretending to be humble and respectful. The Committee members demanded to know what the top brass knew about the plane’s hazards and when they knew it.  Lower-level Boeing engineers, technicians, and test pilots had already told Boeing executives about the plane’s problems, but the warnings were ignored in the rush to market.

There were table-thumping questions and demands (e.g. for Muilenburg’s resignation) by both Democrats and Republicans. However, no legislative proposals were on the table. One year after the Lion Airlines plane crashed into the Java Sea, there is still no tangible effort to provide the FAA with the stronger authority, a larger budget, and the staff needed to properly oversee the aircraft/airline industry. The FAA must be able to enforce meaningful laws with civil fines and, when necessary, referrals to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. The lack of proper regulation has allowed for continued unsafe aircraft manufacturing, corner-cutting, and cover-ups.

Ever since the Congress, under Boeing pressure, ordered the FAA to delegate more self-certifying power to Boeing and other aircraft makers, hearings with the FAA, Boeing, and airlines have been theater. Nothing results except giving in to aircraft manufacturers and carriers’ demands, rubber-stamped by the toady FAA and an indentured Congress.

Given all the freebies the airlines give to the U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives (See the survey sent to every member of Congress, which has yet to receive a response) the Congress has never passed the comprehensive passenger bill of rights championed by Flyers’ Rights (https://flyersrights.org/) and numerous aviation columnists.

Given the formidable organization of the knowledgeable families and consistent, thorough media coverage, will Congress do its job? So far, the answer is – not likely. Not one member of Congress has yet returned Boeing’s campaign contributions – over three hundred members take the cash regularly. No Congressional Committee has demanded resignations of Dan Elwell or Ali Bahrami, the FAA officials responsible for enabling Boeing’s “regulatory capture” of the FAA. This failure of regulation was even condemned by the likes of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

No Congressional Committee has even pressed for repealing the notorious provisions, inserted by Boeing, into the 2018 FAA Authorization Act that pushed the FAA further under Boeing’s giant thumb.

On the other hand, the families of the crash victims and Flyers’ Right’s Paul Hudson are advancing critical findings by the National Safety Transportation Board (See their report) and the Joint Authorities Technical Review (See their report), along with the serious findings of a long-neglected 2017 airline union-sponsored report (See Aircraft Certification “Transformation” Pre-Decisional Involvement Report). With increasing numbers of aerospace safety specialists and inspectors who have been coming forward, maybe Congress can end its indentured status. Maybe the national legislature can stand tall for airline safety regulation and a reformed Boeing corporation, shorn of its presently complicit executives and trophy Board of Directors.

To make action on Capitol Hill more likely, the Congressional Committees must schedule hearings now for consumer groups, families, the airline industry unions, and very importantly, the experienced technical critics of the 737 MAX and Boeing’s handling of that aircraft – past, present, and future. All these parties have been waiting with rising impatience to be called.

In public releases, October 23 and 29, 2019, the families of Boeing’s MAX victims laid out what Boeing and the FAA need to do before the hundreds of MAX planes are allowed in the air.

Summarizing their demands:

  1. If the MCAS (software) fix is not publically disclosed, the 737 MAX should not fly;
  2. If the purpose of the MCAS system is not determined, the 737 MAX should not fly;
  3. If there is no recertification of the whole plane as an integrated system, the 737 MAX should not fly;
  4. Until Boeing fixes its culture to eliminate undue pressure on engineers, the 737 MAX should not fly; and
  5. Until Boeing identifies and removes those who made the decision to conceal the MCAS from the FAA, pilots, and the public, the 737 MAX should not fly.

Paul Hudson, the longtime director of Flyers’ Rights, who is on an FAA Advisory Committee, has put forth numerous MAX-related demands, as well as a detailed series of recommendations to reform the FAA from top to bottom (https://flyersrights.org/).

Airline passengers, please note that Boeing intends to put 5,000 flawed 737 MAX airplanes into operation. Already about 400 of them have been grounded since March by U.S. and foreign airlines.

With Boeing already in trouble with its big pentagon and NASA contracts, don’t bet on its full-page ads and other propaganda. Boeing’s P.R. spin will not protect you. Rely on your own vigilance and “Axe the MAX” from your future travel plans.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate and the author of "The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future" (2012). His new book is, "Wrecking America: How Trump’s Lies and Lawbreaking Betray All(2020, co-authored with Mark Green).

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