Sept. 30, 2019, © Leeham News: Boeing’s announcement last week that it’s establish a permanent Board level safety committee, realigning some functions and creating new lines of reporting is a good and necessary step.
It’s not only good and necessary for the 737 MAX return to service, it’s good and necessary for Boeing and for the industry.
It’s also just a first step in restoring confidence in the MAX and the Boeing brands.
As I’ve written before, groundings of commercial airplanes, while rare, are not unknown. In the US alone, since World War II the Douglas DC-6, Lockheed Constellation, Martin 202, McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Boeing 787 were grounded for design flaws.
But the grounding of the 737 MAX is unprecedented in scale and in duration.
There were 387 MAXes in service when global regulators grounded the airplane March 13. There are roughly another 300 newly produced and undelivered MAXes stored in Washington State and in Texas. Even after grounding orders are lifted, Boeing will be producing the MAX at a faster rate than it initially can deliver the airplane.
Boeing has yet to publicly detail how it will meet this logistical challenge.
Boeing’s permanent Board-level safety committee, the Aerospace Safety Committee, and new reporting lines within Boeing Commercial Airplanes, brings the ability to communicate safety issues right to the top.
I’ve never bought into the thesis advance by some that Boeing deliberately cut safety corners for expediency, greed and cost-cutting.
There is nothing in it for Boeing to produce unsafe airplanes.
These are good people. Good people sometimes make bad decisions. Good people sometimes make stupid decisions. I don’t think there is anyone who can say he or she hasn’t done so.
Desires to cut costs and improve efficiencies are standard in any business. Sometimes these go too far, cutting to the quick. I think that’s what happened at Boeing, and it’s been a long, long time in the making.
It would be easy to point fingers at former CEO Jim McNerney, current CEO Dennis Muilenburg and even the old McDonnell Douglas crowd when it comes to cost-cutting policies. In truth, Boeing was bloated and it did need cost-cutting. It did and continues to need production transformation to become more efficient and competitive in the future.
But Boeing’s engineering union, SPEEA, and its touch-labor union, the IAM 751, have been warning for years that cost-cutting was going too deep and safety was being jeopardized.
I’m not so naïve as to think that there wasn’t a certain amount of self-interest for job preservation in these complaints. But executive management was too quick to dismiss these warnings and complaints are purely self-interest tactics.
These chickens have come home to roost.
That Boeing was headed down the proverbial rat hole of systemic problems should have been obvious to Chicago.
The 787 was grounded, 3 ½ years late and billions of dollars over budget. The 747-8 was late and a few billion dollars over budget. The KC-46A was running over budget—it’s now up to $3.5bn in write-offs—and two years late. The development of the MAX, initially put at about $1bn-$1,5bn by former CFO Jack Bell (later internally upped to $2bn) reportedly ran at about $4bn, a figure that is unconfirmed.
Quality control at the 787 plant in Charleston remained an issue and LNA periodically received reports of emerging QC problems at Everett on the 777 line. (The KC-46 QC issues over foreign object debris that emerged came much later.)
These issues alone should be alerted Boeing executives to systemic issues within BCA.
Then came the grounding of the MAX.
The MAX became Boeing’s day of reckoning for a few decades of decisions, cost-cutting and, well, arrogance. This will make for a series of business school case studies.
It’s a cliché that the deaths of people (usually in the context of war) have died in vain. It is, of course, a huge tragedy what happened to the passengers and crew on Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian 302.
But these twin tragedies means Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration have taken a deep dive into their processes, protocols, design standards, etc. Perhaps it is true, as Boeing says, that development of the MAX didn’t violate any of these that were in place. What is equally true, or so it appears, is that these all were flawed at some level.
It is also true that aviation learns from accidents.
Global regulators are learning from the FAA’s flawed processes and protocols. Other manufacturers, whether it be Airbus, Embraer, Mitsubishi, COMAC or Irkut, also are learnings. No doubt the builders of private and corporate airplanes also will learn, as will manufacturers of helicopters and maybe even drones and UAVs.
This is why criminal investigations into airline accidents, prevalent outside the US, are a bad idea. There must be free flow of information for the benefit all stakeholders. I’m deeply concerned that there are criminal investigations by US authorities in the MAX crisis.
I’m also concerned about Congressional hearings. The FAA’s role is fair game, but Congressional hearings all too often become opportunities for making headlines rather than eliciting information.