Here’s a hypothetical: A company’s new plane, of which it is publicly very proud, and seemingly rightly so, suffers a crash that might be related to an as yet unknown and unanticipated design flaw. Many die in the crash. Then, a few months later, there’s another eerily similar crash, in which many more people lose their lives. The company immediately grounds the planes and works with investigators to try to get to the bottom of it. They search and discover the cause of the crash and they work diligently and transparently to fix it.. Regulators, with whom the company has worked closely this whole time, approve the fix, and the plane goes back into service. This is, by the way, except for the disasters part, not what happened with Boeing and the 737 Max, sadly.
We do not live in a perfect world, and we in aviation should be more aware of this fact than anyone this side of the bomb squad. If something goes wrong on a plane, and there are literally a million things (or more) that could go wrong, catastrophe can and sometimes, though rarely, does follow. In the design of a new plane, mistakes will be made. This is because it’s impossible to foresee every eventuality, try as we puny humans might. Things that escaped notice, perhaps the design of a fuel tank sensor in a jumbo jet, the inaccurate production of the leading edge of a trainer—a bad choice, in retrospect—of materials for a critical tail support. Things like these not only can happen, but these are actual examples of mistakes in development that did happen. You might recognize them.
But what Boeing is facing is the growing belief, and I’ve been saying this for more than a year now, that it has comported itself in a way that no aircraft manufacturer should. Not once, not twice, but so many times that this journalist has lost count. The hypothetical example above is just that, fantasy, because not only should Boeing have known there were potentially disastrous risks associated with its MCAS stability augmentation system it reportedly rushed into service to get its new 737 Max on the market before Airbus owned the whole segment, but it allegedly did know it. Not only should Boeing have worked more closely with regulators in the design and certification of MCAS, it actively, according to Boeing engineers privy to the program, worked to keep regulators from fully grasping the nature of the risks involved. It was reportedly less than transparent with its airline partners, with its suppliers, with its own employees and with the public, all in an attempt by all appearances to keep the plane flying even after two disasters believed to have been related to, if not directly caused by, MCAS, and it allegedly worked to keep MCAS out of training materials even after the crashes, as it had successfully done up until that time, a move intended to drive sales—less training required equals bigger profits for its airline customers equals more sales for Boeing.
And all along, the company has refused to do what it should have done from the start: Build an airplane honestly and then sell it, train for it and service it just as honestly. This is the kind of integrity that made Boeing what it is, and the company has, over the past few years (much of that time known to just a few people), worked to undermine decades of trust and good will.
None of this is new. What is new in recent weeks is that Boeing employees traded messages not just among themselves but also to regulators in which they mocked the system and the plane that resulted. In one shocking communication to investigators, Boeing employees call the 737 Max a plane “designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys,” this reported by the New York Times, among others. Even worse, Boeing employees in internal messaging ridiculed federal certification rules and suggested the company had knowingly kept the FAA in the dark about certification concerns with the 737 Max, this according a report in the Chicago Tribune.
Boeing did part with its CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, but only after leaving him in charge for more than a year after damaging information about Boeing’s 737 Max program had emerged, and only after the company denied there were problems and actively fought against grounding the plane. Boeing fired Muilenburg just before Christmas 2019, though he did walk away with a severance package reportedly worth as much as $80 million. Ouch. That must have hurt.
And now the company is saying the 737 Max might not be flying again until midyear. We wonder, though, just how much longer it will take Boeing to regain the trust the 737 Max debacle has cost it and which took 80 years of honest service to build.