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Boeing pilots’ messages on 737 MAX safety raise new questions

WASHINGTON: A Boeing senior pilot said he might have unintentionally misled regulators, in a series of internal messages from 2016 that became public Friday, plunging the world’s largest airplane maker into a fresh crisis.

The messages, first reported by Reuters, sent Boeing shares tumbling, prompted a demand by U.S. regulators for an immediate explanation, and a new call in Congress for Boeing to shake up its management as it continues to grapple with the fallout from two fatal crashes that have grounded its fastest-selling plane.

In a transcript of instant messages between two employees, the 737 MAX’s then-chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner, said the so-called MCAS anti-stall system in the airplane was “running rampant” in a flight simulator session.

The system has been tied to the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that together killed 346 people.

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

The fresh discovery came days before Muilenburg, who was stripped of his chairman title by the board last week, is due to testify before Congress.

“These messages indicate that Boeing withheld damning information from the FAA, which is highly disturbing,” Peter DeFazio, Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives transportation committee, wrote in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Friday.

The FAA said it “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.

Boeing said on Friday that Muilenburg had called FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to respond to the concerns raised in his letter and assured him that the company “is taking every step possible to safely return the MAX to service.”

It said it had produced the document containing a former Boeing employee’s statements to the appropriate investigating authority earlier this year, and brought it to the attention of the Department of Transportation on Thursday.

Boeing has been cooperating with the House of Representatives Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s probe into the 737 MAX and will continue to do so in investigations by U.S. authorities, the company said.

Boeing turned the documents over to the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI in February, one source said.

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. And the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee confirmed it will question Muilenburg at an Oct. 29 hearing, one day before a House of Representatives panel is scheduled to question him.

The 737 MAX has been grounded worldwide since March, forcing more than 100 daily flight cancellations at large U.S operators of the aircraft such as Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, and eroding their profits.

Boeing has said the grounding has already cost it at least $8 billion.

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