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Boeing 2016 internal messages suggest employees may have misled FAA on 737 MAX safety

The messages, now said to be in the hands of the US Department of Justice, have worsened the ongoing crisis for the aviation giant

US aviation regulators criticised Boeing on Thursday for not immediately disclosing communications between two employees with "concerning" information on the investigation of the 737 MAX. AFP
US aviation regulators criticised Boeing on Thursday for not immediately disclosing communications between two employees with "concerning" information on the investigation of the 737 MAX. AFP

Boeing turned over instant messages from 2016 between two employees that suggest the aircraft manufacturer may have misled the Federal Aviation Administration about a key safety system on the grounded 737 MAX, according to documents seen by Reuters.

The messages, first reported by Reuters on Friday, prompted FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to demand an "immediate" explanation from Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg for the delay in turning over the documents the company said it had found "some months ago."

The messages deepened the crisis for the world's largest aircraft maker days before Mr Muilenburg, who last Friday was stripped of his chairman title by the board, is due to testify before the Congress on the development of the 737 MAX.

The aircraft has been grounded worldwide since March following two fatal crashes within five months.

The FAA said on Friday that Boeing told it a day earlier about internal messages it had discovered "some months ago" that characterise "certain communications with the FAA during the original certification of the 737 MAX in 2016."

The FAA said it found the messages "concerning" and "is reviewing this information to determine what action is appropriate."

A person briefed on the matter said Boeing failed to turn over the documents to the FAA for four months and that the Justice Department is also in possession of the messages.

The internal messages raised questions about the performance of the so-called MCAS anti-stall system that has been tied to the two fatal crashes, one in Indonesia and another in Ethiopia.

The messages are between the MAX's then-chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner, and another Boeing pilot, the sources said, and raised questions about the MCAS's performance in the simulator in which he said it was "running rampant."

In the exchange seen by Reuters, Mr Forkner said he was writing while "drinking icy cold grey goose."

The messages appear to be the first publicly known observations that MCAS behaved erratically during testing before the aircraft entered service.

Mr Forkner has since left Boeing. Neither he nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment.

The Seattle Times reported in September that Mr Forkner repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not turn over documents subpoenaed by the Justice Department.

Boeing said in a statement the company "brought to the Committee's attention a document containing statements by a former Boeing employee."

Mr Forkner said in one text message, "I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)." The other employee responded that "it wasn't a lie, no one told us that was the case" of an issue with MCAS.

Mr Forkner responded soon after: "Granted I suck at flying, but even this was egregious." At one point Mr Forkner said "there are still some real fundamental issues" in the simulator.

The FAA plans to turn over more communications from Mr Forkner to Congress later on Friday, sources said.

Boeing is revising the 737 MAX software to add more safeguards and require the MCAS system to receive input from two key sensors.

The FAA reiterated that it is "following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline, for returning the Boeing 737 MAX to passenger service. The agency will lift the grounding order only after we have determined the aircraft is safe."

Airline profits worldwide are taking a hit as 737 MAX jets are grounded, forcing over 100 daily flight cancellations at large US operators like Southwest Airlines and American Airlines.

Southwest, which on Thursday delayed the return of the plane to its schedule until February, said on Friday it was unaware of the internal messages but continued to work with Boeing and the FAA "in their shared pursuit of safety."

Separately, the US Senate Commerce Committee confirmed it will question Mr Muilenburg at an October 29 hearing, one day before a House of Representatives panel is scheduled to question him.

Boeing shares fell 6.7 per cent after the Reuters report, helping to drag the Dow Jones industrial average down to a session low.

Federal prosecutors, aided by the FBI, the Department of Transportation's inspector general and several blue-ribbon panels, are investigating the 737 MAX's certification.

Updated: October 19, 2019 12:14 AM

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