CHICAGO (CBS/AP) — Less than a month after a 737 Max crashed off the coast of Indonesia, airline pilots confronted a Boeing executive about new features on the plane that might have been factors in two deadly crashes.
CBS News obtained exclusive audio of the tense meeting between the American Airlines pilots’ union and an official with Chicago-based Boeing last November, months before the second deadly crash involving a 737 Max.
The pilots at the meeting were furious that a new anti-stall system on the 737 Max was not disclosed until after Lion Air flight 610 went down in the Java Sea in October, killing 189 people.
“These guys didn’t even know the damn system was on the airplane — nor did anybody else,” one pilot said.
Boeing vice president Mike Sinnett, who does not appear to know he was being recorded, claimed what happened to Lion Air was once-in-a-lifetime type scenario.
“I don’t know that understanding this system would’ve changed the outcome on this. In a million miles, you’re going to maybe fly this airplane, maybe once you’re going to see this, ever. So we try not to overload the crews with information that’s unnecessary so they actually know the information we believe is important,” the official said.
The pilots in the room were not satisfied with that answer.
“We’re the last line of defense to being in that smoking hole. And we need the knowledge,” one pilot said.
Four months after that meeting, an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 157 people.
A software fix for the anti-stall system was still in development at the time. Boeing has said it was more important to get the fix right than to rush it.
All 737 Max planes were grounded after the second crash, and Boeing reported no new orders for any of its planes in April.
Meantime, Acting FAA Administrator Daneil Elwell is set to testify before a House aviation panel on Wednesday regarding how the 737 Max passed regulatory safety checks.
House Aviation subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen said he expects answers about the FAA’s certification of the Max, the role of Boeing employees in assessing key features on the plane, and FAA’s role in developing pilot training for the plane.
“The committee’s investigation is just getting started, and it will take some time to get answers, but one thing is clear right now: The FAA has a credibility problem,” Larsen said in a prepared statement.
Boeing is already the subject of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department. Boeing customers Southwest Airlines and American Airlines and their pilot unions have received subpoenas related to that investigation; United Airlines, which also flew the Max until it was grounded in March, declined to comment, although its pilot union confirmed that it too has received a subpoena.
The Transportation Department’s inspector general and a Senate committee are looking into the FAA’s relationship with Boeing, and the House subcommittee is likely to follow a similar path.
The hearing before the House panel is expected to cover the FAA’s review of a flight-control system on the Max that was not present on earlier versions of the 737. In both accidents, the automated flight system pushed the nose of the plane down and pilots were unable to regain control.
The Dallas Morning News reported that American Airlines pilots pressed Boeing in November — shortly after the first Max crash — on potentially grounding the planes and pushed for a quick software fix from planemaker.
“We don’t want to do a crappy job of fixing things, and we also don’t want to fix the wrong things,” a Boeing employee responded, according to a recording reviewed by the newspaper.
Elwell was scheduled to be joined at the House hearing by Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. No Boeing representative was scheduled to testify.
At the same time Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to hear from Stephen Dickson, a former airline pilot and Delta Air Lines executive whom President Donald Trump nominated to head the FAA on a permanent basis. The agency has not had a permanent director since January 2018.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)