Pilots and flight attendants, who have been critical of Boeing Co.’s handling of the beleaguered 737 Max, will air their concerns Wednesday with lawmakers probing actions by the company and its regulators in the run-up to two fatal crashes.
Leaders of the Allied Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA — as well as retired airline pilot Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger — are scheduled to testify before a U.S. House aviation panel investigating the two crashes, in Indonesia and Ethiopia, that killed a total of 346 people. The tragedies led to the worldwide grounding of the jet, damaged the reputation of the planemaker and raised questions about the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight.
Pilot and flight attendant unions have emerged as counterweights to the measured statements of airlines and regulators. They’ve publicly and privately demanded greater transparency, training and accountability from Boeing.
“As an independent voice for our passengers, it’s extraordinarily important that we are relentless,” said Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines captain and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association. “Anything else is unacceptable and counter to our calling as professional pilots.”
In both disasters, pilots unsuccessfully battled automatic nose-down movements commanded by new flight software on the Max known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. The movements were triggered by erroneous readings from one of the Max’s two weather vane-like “angle of attack” sensors on either side of the jet’s nose.
Pilots weren’t told about MCAS until after the October crash in Indonesia, an omission that APA President Daniel Carey will call a “huge error” by Boeing that led to a lack of “robust pilot training” in the event of a misfire, according to his prepared remarks.
A spokesman for Boeing didn’t respond to a request for comment. The embattled Max won a commercial endorsement at the Paris Air Show on Tuesday, as IAG SA, the parent company of British Airways, promised to build its future short-haul fleet around the model with a plan to buy 200 jets.
Continued missteps after a 737 Max operated by Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea off Indonesia last October further undermined trust, Tajer said.
Frustrated 737 Max pilots peppered a Boeing representative with tough questions about the jet during a closed-door meeting after the Lion Air crash, according a leaked recording of the conversation.
American Airlines pilots in May learned that a cockpit light would only warn pilots of an errant angle-of-attack reading once the jet was 400 feet above the ground, Tajer said. That contradicted what Boeing had previously told Tajer’s union in November, that the so-called “disagree” light would alert pilots while still on the ground, thus giving them a chance to halt a takeoff should the warning appear, he said.
“It’s very difficult, because every time we think we get one step forward from the initial violation of trust after Lion Air, we’ve had this steady stream of misinformation,” Tajer said in an interview. “We have miles to go.”
In November, he was equally outspoken when the pilots learned about MCAS and the fact that it hadn’t been highlighted in materials given to them about the new jet model, saying “We were told that not much else is different. Now we know there is.”
A bulletin from APA to American’s pilots said details about the system weren’t included in the documentation about the plane. “This is the first description you, as 737 pilots, have seen,” it said.
Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association and a captain at the airline, told members in a message then that the lack of information about MCAS was “very disconcerting.”
“The companies and the pilots should have been informed,” Weaks said in November. “It makes us question, ‘Is that everything, guys?’ I would hope there are no more surprises out there.”
The witness list for Wednesday’s House hearing also includes Sullenberger, who gained fame by safely ditching a disabled US Airways jet on the Hudson River off Manhattan in 2009.
Also scheduled to testify is AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson, whose union represents flight attendants from several carriers including United Continental Holdings Inc., which has 14 737 Max jets.
The union called on the Federal Aviation Administration to ground the 737 Max just two days after the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max — a day before the agency followed regulators around the globe and halted flights.
“The minute that Ethiopian Airlines flight went down we immediately started hearing from our members that they were uncomfortable flying this plane,” Nelson said in an interview.
Since then, Nelson said, Boeing has been unusually engaging with flight attendants by holding direct discussions and inviting officials for a demonstration of the MCAS software update in a flight simulator, Nelson said.
“That’s not necessarily something that would normally happen. This is more about the recognition that they need to be very transparent,” Nelson said.
Once flights resume, it will fall mostly to flight attendants to calm the nerves of passengers who may be anxious on those early flights, said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“It’s the flight attendants who are in the aisles and who are talking to passengers,” said Goelz, who is now a consultant with clients including the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. a union that represents employees of American Airlines, which operates 24 Max planes. “If they are not brought into the process in a meaningful way so that they are fully comfortable, it’s going to undercut any relaunch of this aircraft.”
That sentiment was echoed by Lori Bassani, national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.
In written testimony prepared for the hearing, Bassani said “if the public does not believe that the process of returning the 737 MAX 8 to service is not the result of a thorough, rigorous, and transparent safety-driven process, then this aircraft will likely be forever tainted.”
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