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Don’t Let Boeing Off the Hook for the 737 MAX Disasters
Months after a pair of deadly crashes, a narrative has emerged putting the blame primarily on bad pilots. Don’t believe it.
Six months and billions in losses after two of its 737 MAX airliners suffered deadly crashes, Boeing is still working on a fix for the troubled aircraft model. What’s clear by now is that the problem isn’t just, as originally suspected, a faulty sensor. Like a homeowner whose attempt to repair a soft spot in the molding reveals a rotten joist and then a whole rotten wall, the facts behind 737 MAX fiasco reveal a corporate culture that has been quietly deteriorating for decades. While the proximate cause of the accident was a piece of hardware you can fit in your hand, solving the problem might require tearing the company down to its foundation.
Thanks to reporting by many superb journalists, the genesis of the tragedy is now understood in detail. The tale begins in the 2000s, when Boeing decided against investing in a clean-sheet replacement for its hugely popular but aging 737 narrow-body jet. It continued in the 2010s, when the company decided to make massive payouts to investors through dividends and stock buybacks rather than invest in engineers or technology. And it reached its culmination with the decision to hastily update the 737 by slapping together a Frankenplane whose powerful new engines caused it to be dynamically unstable. To paper over the plane’s flaws, Boeing fitted it with an ill-conceived automated system that would spring into action at unexpected times, and farmed out the software that ran it to coders in India. Worst of all, it didn’t even tell pilots that the system existed.
The 737 MAX is considerably less than perfect. But even after the grounding Boeing kept building more.
To be sure, the 737 MAX that started to roll off the production line in Renton, Washington in February 2018 was mostly fine. It was sleek, efficient, and solidly constructed. And it worked as intended almost all the time. But in modern aviation, 99.99% reliable is not reliable enough. Tens of thousands of planes take off every day, and in order to preserve public confidence, all of them have to land in one piece. A plane that crashes once every hundred thousand times isn’t good enough. And there’s no reason today for anyone to build a plane that is less than perfect.
The 737 MAX is considerably less than perfect. But even after the grounding Boeing kept building more. The company now has some 250 undelivered planes on its hands, more than it can fit in parking lots in Renton, so it has started shipping them down to the California desert. It’s currently adding another 42 to the inventory every month. The world is hungry for new airplanes, but the wait for the 737 MAX to be declared airworthy is stretching way beyond what Boeing’s customers expected. In the immediate aftermath of the grounding, Boeing hoped to have a fix ready within weeks. Then it had to further postpone that fix. Now it doesn’t expect to have the first planes back in the air until the fourth quarter, at the earliest.
In some parts of the world, the wait could be considerably longer. Last week, Bloomberg reported that Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary called the delay in 737 deliveries the greatest operational challenge for his airline. “The best outlook for the first aircraft will come in January, more realistic outlook is end of February or March,” he said. “If it runs later than March, April, or May we will have to take some more aircraft out of next summer’s schedule and slow down growth further.”
Getting the plane in the air isn’t just a question of Boeing fixing its problems, however. Boeing has to convince authorities in the U.S. and around the world that its solutions will really work.
How to restore trust? As they say in recovery, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. Somewhere along the way, a company that was all about building airplanes had become something else. Aggressive acquisitions turned Boeing into a conglomerate. It moved its headquarters from Washington state to Chicago. Its priorities shifted from making great airplanes to engineering great financial results. Between 2013 and 2019, its spending on research languished while it poured more than $60 billion into stock buybacks and dividends. CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s compensation in 2018 grew 27% to $23.8 million to $30 million even as quality control problems in Boeing factories multiplied.
In this context, writes the New Republic’s Maureen Tkacik, the 737 MAX “was the entirely predictable outcome of the byzantine process by which investment capital becomes completely abstracted from basic protocols of production and oversight.”
Change is needed — but change can be painful. It’s easy to tell oneself that everything is basically fine, that the real problem is someone else. Boeing management has consistently tried to shift blame for the fatal accidents to the pilots at the controls. And they’re not without advocates among the ranks of journalists.
Disrespect for one’s customers does not make for healthy business relationships. Nor does cutting costs at the expense of quality.
In the New York Times Magazine, writer William Langewiesche places ultimate responsibility for the two fatal crashes on the poor training of the Indonesian and Ethiopian pilots who were at the controls. “It was the decisions made by four of those pilots, more than the failure of a single obscure component, that led to 346 deaths and the worldwide grounding of the entire fleet,” he writes.
Langewiesche, himself an experienced commercial pilot, is confident that had he been at the controls, he would have known what to do. He is a real airman, someone who has wrestled the yoke in many dangerous real-world situations. Today’s young pilots, Langewiesche suggests, are ill-trained and hapless. They learn by rote and cheat on tests and generally suck, especially those from developing countries. Langewiesche has talked to several retired white men who agree on this point:
Dave Carbaugh, the former Boeing test pilot, spent his first 10 years with the company traveling the globe to teach customers how to fly its airplanes. He mentioned the challenge of training pilots in Asia. “Those were the rote pilots,” he said. I asked about China specifically. He said: “The Chinese? They were probably the worst.”
One need not squint too hard to read this kind of characterization as inherently racist. But this perspective is apparently endemic in the industry. Langewiesche reports that Lion Air founder and chairman Rusdi Kirana feels Boeing to be “presumptuous and typically condescending” and quotes him as saying: “They look down on my airline and my country […] they treat us as third-world.”
Disrespect for one’s customers does not make for healthy business relationships. Nor does cutting costs at the expense of quality. For decades, Boeing has profited handsomely from its unimpeachable reputation. But trust is easier to lose than to earn. The stacks of 737 MAXs piling up in parking lots are a bonfire of both cash and goodwill. If Boeing wants to save its reputation from the flames it should swallow its pride, oust its feckless management, and return to building planes worthy of its founder’s name.