By Scott Hamilton
Nov. 20, 2021, © Leeham News: Flying Blind, The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing is the sad story of how The Boeing Co., once renowned for its engineering prowess, descended into the depths of crisis with its most profitable airplane.
Authored by Bloomberg news reporter Peter Robison, much of the story is well known on the proverbial 35,000-foot level. Congressional hearings, investigative reporting, crash coverage of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 310, provided plenty of grist for the mill.
Robison delves deeper into the crisis that encompassed Boeing from March 2019 with the ET 310 crash, from which it won’t recover for years. I point to the Ethiopian crash as the start of the crisis, because for the most part, the Lion Air crash was viewed as just another crash—until Ethiopian’s tragedy made it clear there was something deadly wrong with the 737 MAX.
The fall of Boeing, however, was rooted in events long before the MAX accidents. Many within Boeing complained for years that the 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas Corp. (MDC) was the beginning of the long descent. I agree, and Robison takes a dive into this merger and the cost-cutting philosophy that came with it. Critics and many Boeing employees complain the MDC merged with Boeing using Boeing’s money. (It was actually a stock deal, not in cash.) Further, they complain, the McDonnell Douglas philosophy overwhelmed the Boeing engineering prowess.
But the descent doesn’t stop there. It continued with the “GE” philosophy of maximizing shareholder value at the expense of developing new airplanes—and with the two MAX crashes, allegations that shareholder value also was at the expense of safety.
Robison also takes a detailed look at the GE philosophy and how it infected Boeing.
Yet, as one gets deep into the book, for all the sordid news to come out during the two years since the Lion Air crash, in some ways, which was only the tip of the iceberg. Only one person is being held accountable by authorities for Boeing’s misdeeds: mid-level pilot, Mark Forkner, whose impertinent emails deriding the Federal Aviation Administration and others landed him at the center of the scandal. Forkner was the only Boeing official indicted. His attorney is a high-powered, high-profile guy named David Gerger. Forkner’s salary at Boeing and later as a pilot for Southwest Airlines (he no longer works here, either) couldn’t possibly afford Gerger. Robison reports that Boeing is paying Gerger’s legal fees. For his part, Gerger says Forkner is a scapegoat.
Robison’s story is revealing despite all the other information, investigations, and hearings that are already in the public domain.
When Robison began his work, I was already well into writing my book, Air Wars, The Global Combat Between Airbus and Boeing. Air Wars covers 35 years of the sales, marketing, and product strategy battles between the Big Two. I had to delay the book to include a chapter on the MAX tragedies and the COVID-19 impact, but the two books take different approaches and are compatible. I go into more detail about the development of the Airbus A320neo, which maneuvered Boeing into re-engining the 737 to become the MAX. Air Wars also has more detail about the debate within Boeing about the battle whether to re-engine the 737 or develop an entirely new airplane. Flying Blind goes deeper into the McDonnell Douglas influence and discusses the GE philosophy more than Air Wars.
There is a third book, Fall from the Skies¸ The Descent of Boeing and the 737 MAX, and still other books about the MAX crisis, which I’ve not read. Robison’s book is a must-read. And, of course, I would say the same about Air Wars, which is rated 4.5 stars by Amazon reviewers.