Boeing CEO Defends 737 Max Jets Against Angry Shareholders

Apr 29, 2019
Originally published on April 30, 2019 3:01 pm
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Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was in the hot seat today. He defended the 737 Max aircraft at the company's annual shareholders meeting in Chicago. The 737 Max remains grounded worldwide after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed a total of 346 people. Muilenburg faced tough questions about the plane's design and whether it was rushed into production. NPR's Russell Lewis has more.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Normally, a company's shareholder meeting isn't filled with tension, anger and frustration. But even before Boeing executives took to the stage today, protesters were outside in a cold, driving rainstorm. They stood, quietly clutching pictures of people who died in last month's Ethiopian Airlines crash. Among the protesters was Tarek Milleron from California. His 24-year-old niece, Samya Stumo, worked for a global health nonprofit. He's mad at Boeing.

TAREK MILLERON: They're not going to get away with this ridiculous notion that they're super-safety conscious and now they're going to be ultra-safety conscious. That just doesn't fly.

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GRANT DIXTON: Good morning. And welcome to the Boeing Company's 2019 annual meeting of shareholders. My name is Grant Dixton, and I'm the company's corporate secretary.

LEWIS: At the meeting, Boeing's CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, opened with a moment of silence and expressed regret for the 346 deaths. In both accidents, a sensor fed erroneous data into the jet's flight computers. Pilots lost control after takeoff when the nose of each plane pitched down uncontrollably. But Muilenburg is standing by the process to get the system fixed.

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DENNIS MUILENBURG: With a certified software update implemented, the 737 Max will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly.

LEWIS: As Muilenburg guides the aerospace giant through this crisis, saying Boeing owns the responsibility, there are other questions, including, why was the 737 MAX initially certified as safe, and why wasn't the plane grounded after the first accident in Indonesia? Muilenburg survived a shareholder vote today that would have split his CEO and chairman roles. But in a testy news conference afterwards, he was asked if he'd thought about resigning.

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MUILENBURG: It's important that, as a company, we have those clear priorities, that we're taking the right actions, that we have the right culture. I am strongly vested in that. And my clear intent is to continue to lead on the front of safety and quality and integrity.

LEWIS: Muilenburg also defended Boeing and the 737 Max. He said the plane's design is not the problem, even though that's the very thing the company is fixing.

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MUILENBURG: We've confirmed that it was designed per our standards, certified per our standards. And we're confident in that process.

LEWIS: Muilenburg wouldn't answer if the original design was flawed. He took only a handful of questions and walked out as reporters shouted for him to stay. Boeing is the subject of several congressional investigations, whistleblower complaints and lawsuits filed by family members killed in the accidents. Muilenburg gave no timeline when the 737 Max might be flying again. But whenever that happens, Boeing will need to rebuild the trust of a jittery public and aviation industry, says Dennis stager. He's a 737 captain for American and a union representative.

DENNIS TAJER: Just like in any relationship repair, you kind of have to go through the past to understand how to get to the future. Sometimes the past is very uncomfortable and painful, but we're doing that now.

LEWIS: The 737 Max is key to Boeing's financial future. It is the company's bestselling plane, with pending orders of 5,000, putting more pressure on Boeing to get the planes fixed and soon. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.