If It Ain’t Boeing, I Ain’t Going …

By Robert Mark on October 16th, 2019

An Aviation Minute Editorial

by Rob Mark

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Years ago when I was still flying for a living, I remember seeing a cool little yellow sticker slapped on the side of another pilot’s Jepp bag. “If it ain’t Boeing, we’re not going.” The slogan was a nod of professional respect for the Seattle aircraft builder that brought America into the jet age with great airliners like the Boeing 707, or the three-engine 727 that followed.

Air traffic controllers called the 72 a three-holer and it was visible from miles away on final with black smoke billowing from its P&W JT8s, triple-slotted wing flaps the size of barn doors and the ability to get down and stopped on relatively tiny runways. And who could forget the world’s first double-deck four-engine jumbo, the 747? Boeing built nearly 1,500 of those.

Boeings were known for their ability to take a beating and bring everyone home safely. Pilots who flew Boeing’s B-17s during WWII knew that, as did B-52 drivers when that airplane started flying 70 years ago.

Then there’s Boeing’s 737 with slightly more than 10,000 built, an impressive number by any measure. Within the variants, of course, there’s the now-infamous 737 Max, an airplane Boeing originally created to give the Airbus A-320 neo a run for its money.

While it looked like that might happen a few years ago, the grounding of the Max last March pushed the idea of a profit on that airplane pretty much out of sight to the folks at Boeing’s HQ.

Boeing 737 MAX 7 First Flight – Boeing photo

The problems for Boeing, of course, began in 2018 when the crew of a Lion Air 737 Max lost control of the airplane and crashed shortly after takeoff.

It was only after 189 people died on that Lion Air flight that airplane had been created using a software update called the MCAS, a system designed to make pilots believe the Max handled like earlier 737s, even though design-wise that wasn’t really the case.

What really shocked pilots after the first accident was the realization that Boeing never mentioned the existence of MCAS to anyone, not in the POH or even in training. Boeing was that sure MCAS’s flawed software would never kick in. Those odds dropped precipitously though after the crash of a second 737 Max in March 2019. The entire Max fleet was grounded shortly thereafter, with the U.S. being one of the last to take action.

Each week, the news about what Boeing is doing or what it should be doing, or what Boeing engineers and management knew and when seems to reveal something new. Let’s not forget the FAA played a significant role in this mess too for its lackadaisical oversight of the Max certification.

Boeing first thought the Max fleet would be back flying soon, but as more and more uncomfortable and unbelievable facts have emerged about the design and execution of the Max, the date for the next flight has drifted further and further into the future.

The company has been hit by hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of lawsuits from the families of accident victims. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association just sued Boeing for back wages due them for the 30,000 flights that have been canceled now that the airline’s 34 aircraft have been sitting on the ground for seven months.

SWAPA’s lawsuit claims Boeing, “abandoned sound design and engineering practices, withheld safety-critical information from regulators and deliberately misled its customers, pilots and the public about the true scope of design changes to the 737 MAX.” Ouch.

Then there’s the Boeing whistleblower case from a company engineer who told Boeing the MCAS would never work. The stories go on and on and on … and they’re not getting any better.

Trying to get the Max flying again has become a huge distraction to normal business at Boeing. The company has lost orders for the Max as well as some for the 787. The company’s 777X project has also slowed considerably.

In case these weren’t enough problems to keep Boeing busy, the company recently reported finding cracks in the pickle forks on dozens of 737 NGs (edited 10-19-2019 with thanks to my commenters). The pickle fork attaches the wing to the fuselage BTW.

And because the FAA played a role in the Max dilemma for its poor oversight of the airplane’s certification, EASA in Europe and a number of other regulators want Boeing to perform tests especially for them before they’ll recertify the airplane because they’ve lost confidence in the FAA’s assessment of the problem.

If I was still teaching at Northwestern, the Boeing Max story would easily become a quarter-long case study into what happens when people within an organization refuse to talk or listen to each other. It would also look at what happens when the people who sell things take over from the people who design and build things in a bureaucracy, like when insiders saw this coming long before the Max ever flew. But that’s how bureaucracies operate.

Looking ahead, no one’s even asking whether airline passengers will ever believe the Max is again safe, no matter what Boeing and the FAA say. Plenty of people refused to ever climb aboard a DC-10 decades ago when it was released from its grounding after a number of fatal accidents.

Think for a minute  … in less than a year, Boeing, one of America’s largest single exporters, trashed a reputation that took more than 100 years to create.

I have no doubt the 737 Max will rise from the ashes next year because Boeing and its lobbyists have way too much power to keep it on the ground forever, technical issues or not. Boeing’s Dennis Mulinberg lost his Chairman seat in this mess, but the damage has already been done.

One of the next stories to watch for will be precisely how Boeing and the FAA rollout their plan to convince pilots, flight attendants and maintenance technicians the Max is now safe to fly again, a plan that of course won’t include any simulator time for pilots to get a close up look at MCAS before their next flight.

But I think the really big story will be how Boeing and the FAA convince paying passengers and regulators around the world that there’s nothing to worry about when they climb aboard a Max. Maybe Boeing will change the airplane’s name.

But if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck … well you know.

Or will it be a slick TV commercial, maybe something that sounds like … “We’re Boeing and every time you climb aboard a 737 Max, you can absolutely, positively trust us our product because we’re pretty darned sure we got it right … THIS time.”

I’m thinking those stickers will need an update too before pilots slap them to their carry-ons … “If it ain’t Boeing, we’re not going … probably.”

For Jetwhine.com and the Airplane Geeks, I’m Rob Mark in Chicago. We’ll see you next time.

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6 Responses to “If It Ain’t Boeing, I Ain’t Going …”

  1. If It Ain’t Boeing, I Ain’t Going … | Industry news Says:

    […] Source: FS – Aviation If It Ain’t Boeing, I Ain’t Going … […]

  2. John Gradek Says:

    Hi Rob,

    Great piece on the Boeing fall from grace. As a faculty lecturer at McGill, I can assure you that the learnings of the 737 MAX story will be taught to thousands of our future students as lessons learnt in shoddy risk management and corporate culture gone awry. I certainly hope the FAA and Boeing have accepted the need to reform their practices.

  3. Paul Berliner Says:

    Excellent article as always Rob. It will take at least 10 years for Boeing to fully recover, if ever. Throw in a recession in the next decade and the recovery process slows even further. By the way, EASA, Brazil DGAC, Transport Canada, and China’s CAAC each performed an independent review during the MAX certification process. EASA, Transport Canada, the FAA, and other regulators were all onboard the final certification flight. However, EASA sees the MAX disaster as an opportunity to increase its regulatory power and is demanding much more from Boeing during the recertification process. So sad for those precious lives lost, the dedicated employees who remain at Boeing and for aviation enthusiasts everywhere.

  4. Michael Says:

    Well done

  5. Michael Craddock Says:

    Well done (Sadly) You might also examine the rudder hardovers about 20 years ago

  6. JohnW Says:

    The Max is the result of shareholder value taking precedence over safety and quality. Simple as that. Interesting that the SWA pilots lawsuit states says that, yet……SWA was in fact one of the major drivers behind keeping costs down with their demands on a Boeing.

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