This is a story about a secret audio recording of American Airlines pilots, the controversy over the Boeing 737 Max, and bare knuckles union politics.

News broke last week of a heated meeting between American Airlines and Boeing representatives last November--after the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, but before the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March. Both crashes killed all passengers and crew.

A recording of the conversation--apparently made without the Boeing side of the table's knowledge--turns angry and frustrated at some points, with the American Airlines pilots apparently urging Boeing to take actions that would have resulted in the plane being grounded, while the Boeing representatives insisted it was safe.

"We're the last line of defense to being that smoking hole," one of the pilots says angrily on the recording, which was then leaked to the media. "And we need the knowledge."

In its article reporting on the audio, the New York Times summarized the implications:

[P]ilots from American Airlines pressed Boeing executives to work urgently on a fix...[and] even argued that Boeing should push authorities to take an emergency measure that would likely result in the grounding of the Max.

The Boeing executives resisted. They didn't want to rush out a fix, and said they expected pilots to be able to handle problems.

After the story broke, Boeing said in a statement to the Dallas Morning News that it "is committed to working with pilots, airlines and global regulators to safely return the updated MAX to flight once certified."

And then on Thursday, Boeing separately said that it had "completed development of the updated software for the 737 MAX, along with associated simulator testing and the company's engineering test flight," taking it a big step forward toward the FAA's review.

But now, some members of the union representing American Airlines pilots say they're incensed that the meeting with Boeing was recorded and leaked to the press in the first place. 

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, some of the pilots believe the decision to release the audio recording had as much to do with a battle over leadership of the union as safety.

Two of the pilots' members are currently in a runoff for the presidency of the union. 

The result apparently has been a series of emails sent to the entire 15,000-pilot union membership, suggesting that recording the meeting and sharing the audio will make it harder for the pilots to work with manufacturers in the future.

"Please consider how you would feel if you were having frank discussions [and] you learned that what you discussed had been recorded without your knowledge," and leaked to the media, a union board member named Joe Collins wrote in an email to other union pilots. "Would you trust them in the future?"

Making it all more tangled is the fact that while the American pilots in the audio sound very frustrated and skeptical, and the union in fact issued a freedom of information request to the FAA on February 26--before the second crash--trying to get documents about the approval of the 737 Max, the pilots' union has publicly been very supportive of Boeing and the troubled plane.

In a press release two days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the union said it "remains confident in the Boeing 737 Max and in our members' ability to safely fly it."

American isn't the largest 737 Max customer; it has about 12 planes, which means it's less affected than rivals like Southwest Airlines. But the pilots unions for Southwest, American, and United have all faced subpoenas from a criminal grand jury in Washington investigating the plane.

Published on: May 19, 2019
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