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Boeing's CEO speaks: 'Our hearts are heavy'

Dennis Muilenburg expresses remorse in first substantive public comments about Ethiopian Airlines crash

Mr Muilenburg says that Boeing is taking actions to fully ensure the safety of the 737 Max, based on the information that the company got from the investigations.

New York

AFTER more than a week of near silence, Dennis Muilenburg, the chief executive of Boeing, made his first substantive public comments about the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

In a statement released by Boeing on Monday night, Mr Muilenburg expressed remorse for the deaths of 346 people in two strikingly similar air disasters involving the company's 737 Max jets - the accident in Ethiopia, on March 10, and the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia in October last year.

"Our hearts are heavy, and we continue to extend our deepest sympathies to the loved ones of the passengers and crew on board," he said.

The investigations into the causes of both crashes are still in progress, and no conclusions have been reached by the authorities. But preliminary data suggests that a combination of new software, faulty sensor readings and inadequate pilot training may have been to blame.

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French air accident investigators confirmed on Monday that flight recorder data from the Ethiopian Airlines jet showed "clear similarities" with the Lion Air jet.

The BEA, the French agency that investigates aviation crashes and incidents, said in a statement that the investigation team had noted these similarities "during the verification process" of data from the flight recorder, which keeps information such as altitude and speed.

Mr Muilenburg said that Boeing was "taking actions to fully ensure the safety of the 737 Max," based on the information that the company got from the investigations.

Among those actions is a software update that has been in the works for months, in response to the Lion Air crash. He said that the update was due "soon".

Mr Muilenburg had been conspicuously quiet since the latest crash as regulators around the world grounded Boeing jets, and the company's stock slumped 12 per cent.

He did make time to call US President Donald Trump twice - first on Tuesday of last week to press the president to keep the 737 Max jets flying, and a day later to encourage their grounding.

But on Monday night, Mr Muilenburg for the first time appeared to try to reassure the public. "Safety is at the core of who we are at Boeing, and ensuring safe and reliable travel on our airplanes is an enduring value and our absolute commitment to everyone," he said. "This overarching focus on safety spans and binds together our entire global aerospace industry and communities."

After the crash in Indonesia, Boeing faced tough questions about the development of the 737 Max, and a flight-control system known as MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System) in particular, which will get the promised software upgrade. Other questions are being raised about the company's training procedures. When the plane was introduced, Boeing believed that pilots who had flown an earlier model did not need additional simulator training and regulators agreed.

Many experts believe that MCAS played a role in that first crash. But the Max jets continued to fly, reflecting the confidence of Boeing, regulators and pilots that the planes were beyond reproach.

But Boeing was thrust into a crisis last week when another jet crashed in nearly identical circumstances. Boeing's newest jet, its best-seller, is now grounded; airlines are demanding compensation; and there is no clear timetable for the return of the Max planes.

And in a development that could have far-reaching implications, Canada's aviation regulator is reviewing its validation of the American certification of the 737 Max, Marc Garneau, the transport minister, told reporters on Monday. "We may not change anything, but we think it's a good idea to review that at this time," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified the 737 Max-8 in 2017, and a key question now is the role that Boeing employees played in the certification process.

The FAA has long relied on outside experts known as designees to help approve new aircraft, and in 2005, it established a programme through which plane makers such as Boeing could choose their own employees to act on the agency's behalf in helping to certify new models.

The programme is meant to allow the FAA to focus its limited resources on the most crucial work, but critics have questioned whether it essentially allows plane makers to serve as their own regulators.

Mr Garneau said that the Canadian government would also examine any alterations that Boeing made to the planes' software regardless of FAA certification, as is the normal procedure.

Just the suggestion that Canada has doubts about the FAA's certification of the planes is a significant change from last week. When Mr Garneau announced that he was banning the Max series aircraft from Canadian skies on Wednesday, he also praised the professionalism of the FAA. "With respect to safety, we are very comfortable with the fact that they are the certifying agency," he said at a news conference.

By mutual agreement, Canada and the United States have accepted the other's certifications for its planes.

"The FAA has been something that Canada would follow to a considerable degree," said Karl Moore, a business professor at McGill University in Montreal who closely follows the aviation industry. "So I would view this as a considerable shift."

While Mr Garneau did not offer any specific reason for his department's review, Prof Moore said that it might be linked to questions around Boeing's relationship with the FAA as well as concerns about the certification of the Max series. NYTIMES

READ MORE: Aircraft certification process in the US is an accident by design

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