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Boeing Employees Mocked FAA Privately In Emails Before 737 Max Disasters


Newly released Boeing emails and internal messages show key Boeing employees raised significant concerns about the safety of the 737 Max. And this was long before two of the airplanes crashed, killing 346 people. Those messages also show employees intentionally deceiving and at times even mocking regulators. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The emails and internal instant messages sent between employees while the plane was under development are breathtaking. This is a joke. This airplane is ridiculous, says one. I'll be shocked if the FAA passes this turd, says another. And perhaps most startling, one employee writes, this airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys.

PETER DEFAZIO: Well, I am thoroughly appalled.

SCHAPER: That's Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

DEFAZIO: I'm angry that this is what was going on on, you know, critical components of this airplane.

SCHAPER: Some of the emails and messages highlight safety problems Boeing's own pilots experienced in Max simulators. One test pilot writes that he crashed the first few times he tried flying the Max in a simulator, saying you get decent at it after three to four tries, but the first few are ugly.

Yet at the same time, the messages indicated a concerted effort to keep pilot training on the new plane to a minimum, as well as efforts to mislead regulators and airline customers. One person even mentions pulling Jedi mind tricks on regulators in an attempt to manipulate them.

Sean Broderick is senior air transport and safety editor at Aviation Week. He says the messages show a pattern of putting cost over safety that started during the early development of the 737 Max.

SEAN BRODERICK: The company had a choice to make the conservative, safe choice or the more cost-effective choice. And in each case, they made them more cost-effective choice.

SCHAPER: Broderick says the emails indicate an effort to pull the wool over the eyes of one early buyer of the 737 Max in particular - Indonesia's Lion Air, which wanted more extensive simulator training for its pilots.

BRODERICK: And Boeing worked very hard to dissuade them, pressure them, some might say, bully them by using examples of other airlines around the world and regulators around the world that said the simulator time wasn't necessary.

SCHAPER: Lion Air flight number 610 was the first Boeing 737 Max to crash.

BRODERICK: Boeing, in that case, didn't take its customers' best interest into consideration. It took its own best interests into consideration.

SCHAPER: In a statement late last night, Boeing says, we regret the content of these communications and apologize to the FAA, Congress, our airline customers and to the flying public for them. A Boeing spokesman says some of the employees who sent the messages may face disciplinary action and that the sentiments expressed are inconsistent with Boeing values.

But critics say the messages actually show the opposite. Aviation industry consultant Scott Hamilton of the Leeham Company says they indicate a problematic culture shift at Boeing.

SCOTT HAMILTON: Shareholder value is No. 1, 2 and 3 priorities, and everything else comes after that.

SCHAPER: The 737 Max crisis cost former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg his job. He was fired just before Christmas. Private equity executive David Calhoun takes over Monday and is tasked with trying to turn Boeing around. But he's been on Boeing's board for a decade, helping establish the policies of cost-cutting and boosting profits, and that may lead some to wonder if he's part of the problem, too.

Meanwhile, in a problem unrelated to the crashes, late today, the FAA proposed fining Boeing another $5.4 million for using faulty wing parts on the Max.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.