Boeing still can not get their act together, not even by utilizing the Quantum Realm can Boeing get out of the mess from the B737 Max accidents!
It goes beyond software
Earlier in the week, the Wall Street Journal article by Andy Pasztor published a revealing article about Boeing:
Boeing admitted, during their annual shareholder meeting that they had deactivated a safety system on their Boeing 737 Max jets.
FAA safety inspectors monitoring Southwest (which is the largest 737 Max customer) was unaware of this change!
The MCAS feature, which transmits data from sensors such as the angle of attack, was linked to two deadly crashes.
This shocking fact was confirmed by investigators.
The angle of attach sensors measure how high or low the “pitch” of the nose of the plane is.
The Boeing 737 Max accidents
One accident involved Lion Air in October of last year. The most recent by Ethiopian Airlines happened in March of this year.
Boeing stated on Monday that they didn’t “intentionally or otherwise deactivate” the disagree alert on its 737 Max jets. But, they indeed failed to mention this important issue to Southwest Airlines and the FAA.
As many know the FAA grounded all 737 Max Jets on March 13. That happened 72 hours after the Ethiopian Air accident but only after pressure from the international aviation regulators.
China’s safety-role in the Max-accident
China took the lead to ground the Max. They cemented and asserted its safety and bona fide credentials to the world. They did that, even as their most significant client is not within its borders. In grounding the B737 China initiated the most significant shift on global responsibility.
There is a wonderful article by Keith Bradsher on the New York Times which talks about this landmark event.
I will do my best to give an unbiased point of view from the business perspective:
Now, where did the genesis of the scandal begin?
Remember that Boeing is one of the two major companies (the other being Airbus) that manufacture airplanes. They manufacture airplanes as “narrowbody” (one aisle) and “widebody” (usually two aisles) airplanes. Airbus and Boeing interchangeably have to compete for the number 1 spot in manufacturing aircraft for each year.
Disclaimer: Two additional companies make narrowbody aircraft, Bombardier and Embraer which can’t compete with the bigger competition.
Matthew Yglesias explains “The emerging 737 Max scandal” in his Vox article. The article is a great presentation of the scandal that spans around a decade back.
Boeing had an existential threat to its bottom line which is the only commercial aviation manufacturer in the United States. Boeing was answering the Airbus challenge of the Airbus A380 with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner series.
I call the A380 “the double-decker whale”. It is a double-decker plane and it has more than 387 between premium & economy seats without counting business and first class.
That is an additional 88 additional seats on the upper deck oft he A380. Such Airbus seat numbers pass the 410 seats of the latest variant of the Queen of the Skies (the Boeing 747-800).
Boeing and the FAA
The FAA is trying to help Boeing overcome their issues. They do that by pushing for a “fly the flag” pride on the part of the United States.
The agency (FAA) with the responsibility to make our skies safer was simply too eager to please Boeing.
Along with a narrow tunnel-vision an arm twisting culture that won over the regulatory system the outlook was bleak. The results ended up as a scandal that was in the making for a long time.
The rivalry of the 737 and the 320 family
I don’t want to compare these pieces of engineering to something like a crime family. But in the scandal of Boeing this particular scandal has caused two accidents. Lives were lost, and thousands of families were disrupted. So Boeing will have to excuse my comparison of this rivalry to the 5 crime families of New York.
The A320 family is comprised of the Airbus clan of the A318, A319 & A320. Usually, you may see them on United, Delta, the complete fleet of Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant.
All three model-variations are mostly the same. Thus airlines save on the cost to certify its pilots on a new aircraft, requiring lengthy training. As a result, an airline can quickly put such pilots and airplanes into scheduled operations.
Boeing is almost the same: 737-600, 737-700, 737-800 (the most common type of Boeing aircraft fleet flying), and the 737-900. Also the higher the model number, the larger the plane. Alaska, American, Delta, United, Southwest all fly the 737 in some form of the variant.
Now there was a new kid in the block that was threatening the throne for Boeing and its family fleet workhorse:
The Airbus A320 NEO
The NEO acronym means New Engine Option. Boeing was fearful many airlines, especially Southwest, would jump to the arms of its European rival.
Airbus knew there was blood in the water, and it was ready to pounce. The updated version meant a more fuel-efficient airplane and a larger engine giving more power to the aircraft. But it could be placed in the same airframe improving and lowering jet fuel cost.
This was one of the cost-items that airlines could definitely control. So it became ground zero for Airbus and Boeing, as labor costs increase. Labor cost cannot be contained unless an airline does cost cutting and some firings on the side.
The A320 NEO caught the off-guard executives at Boeing with their B737 product by a surprise.
My trip to the Boeing Everett Manufacturing facility
It was 2010, and the US Airline Industry was not as strong as it is now.
American Airlines CEO Gerald Arpey was avoiding bankruptcy at any cost. United has just merged with Continental and Delta was ahead of United on the merger mania by a few years. Delta merged in April 2008, and United merge in May 2010. That cost synergies, cost-cutting, and consolidation was the name of the game to stay ahead.
I went to the Boeing Everett Aircraft Manufacturing facility in July of 2010. At that time Boeing was thinking of constructing the 787 Manufacturing Facility in North Charleston, South Carolina.
How I can understand Boeing’s short-sightedness for the B737 Max
During this tour of the 787, I asked Boeing a question. I asked whether or not the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers would accept working on the 787 Dreamliner.
“Would Boeing make the South Carolina plant (according to its state law) a right to work state”?
I asked the question because of past strikes in worker-retaliation of Boeing’s practices.
The person-in-charge of the tour asked me whether I had a family between the issue. I answered “no”. Since I was 20 at the time, with a “deceiving face” which makes me look younger, she continued:
Curiously she asked why I was so interested in the dispute.
I answered, “well I love airplanes and everything related.”
She responded by asking the group if anyone else knew about the dispute, except for the part of me and my step-dad.
Another person raised his hand, she answered by saying: “Regardless of the result, the company is making the aircraft.”
I understood her answer. Now that realize I was in front of an explosive situation to come with the Max jet.
The personnel of Boeing was behind the eightball, just as to what was going to happen with the Max Jet!
If you want to read more about this issue, read the Pacific Standard article by Francie Diep. The article goes in detail about what has happened at both Boeing facilities.
Back to the B737 Max
Returning to the Boeing threat, while Airbus could “swap” the engine on to the old mainframe of their models, which was a no-brainer, Boeing never thought of creating such an option!
For those not as well versed in “fuselage anatomy” of airplanes, think of the Boeing 737 as a sedan that is lowered to the ground. While the Airbus is the SUV, which sits higher off the ground, they could place a bigger engine.
Placing a larger engine on Boeing, with a design so low to the ground, would present a problem. Boeing couldn’t do any more work on their B737 since they couldn’t easily put a larger engine on the NG models (Next Generation acronym) which were the latest model at the time.
Redesigning the 737
By the end of summer of 2011, Boeing had already announced that the redesigned 737 had 496 orders from five different airlines. While behind closed doors it was more of a gray area than a black and white one. There were a few carriers that were about to switch.
The most significant carrier? American Airlines had its sway with Boeing as Gerald Arpey (the CEO) was looking for options to save money, Boeing Chairman/CEO James McNerney couldn’t let that happen, so they went ahead in giving a solution that wasn’t even on the cards.
Re-engineering an airplane this complex was going to have its problems, and they could not hack their way out of it. Engineers, in order to make the redesign work, the engine nacelle (the housing of the engine components) needed to be higher and more forward than the 737NG model.
However, in moving the engine forward, it changes the aerodynamics of the 737 which it could not handle by itself when the airplane had a high pitch degree (like at takeoff).
The Boeing Engineers worked around the problem with the creation of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), sound familiar?
In theory, this would have fixed the “pitch” problem in many situations. However, fixing these problems is like the Hydra: cut one of its heads off and three more would appear!
The challenge was for pilots to be able to control the plane without being overridden by the new system.
While Boeing is correcting the “problem” with a software patch, it looks to the FAA to persuade them to let the aircraft to fly again.
The lesson here was not to take a piece and glue them together, it was to actually design a new 737.
From the perspective of Boeing, it doesn’t help as airlines are looking for the replacement of the 757, and also the 777.
Because a new entire plane requires a more exhaustive certification process and extensive pilot training, Boeing cut the corner in squeaking a “new airplane within the bones of an old one.”
A Dress Rehearsal for Boeing with the 787 Dreamliner Battery
The problems the 787 Dreamliner faced was during the James McNerney- era while he was the Chairman, President & CEO.
The Dreamliner was the answer to the Airbus A380. But in a twist of events of a Japan Airlines coming from Tokyo Narita on a winter morning of January 2013, the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) of the lithium-ion batteries of the 787 Dreamliner caught fire.
A fire suppressant system was supposed to work, but it didn’t.
First Responders using a thermal imaging camera noticed a softball size glow which they utilized Halotron for, to suppress the fire. Thankfully this was after landing, and all the passengers had disembarked.
The problem was that the lithium-ion battery was found to be under the condition of a thermal runaway, which generates intense heat. This was particularly troubling as the plane was delivered just 18 days before the accident.
Then another 787 caught fire. This time it happened to All Nippon Airways (ANA). The pilots returned to Japan for an emergency landing.
Only after these two events, the FAA decided to ground the whole fleet, an order not given since 1979.
Safety-attitude then and now
The difference between these close calls and the accidents on the Max was that the FAA was the proactive, aviation agency in-charge of aviation safety that we all know.
This time around, with the B737 Max, the whole world went ahead of the United States with its safety precautions.
And it wasn’t until Canada decided to ground the Max Jets that twisted the arms of the United States hard enough to ground the entire Max fleet.
While our pilot training is one of the most robust ones in the world, one has to ask: why do we need for Canada to twist our arm in aviation security and policy to ground the fleet in the first place? Why did Canada make the policy decision for us?
Pilot Complaints did not stop
Pilots complain of their manuals as being “inadequate and almost criminally insufficient”. This according to the voluntary aircraft incident report in a NASA database in the article to the Dallas Morning News.
Another pilot reported to the same database “unconscionable that a manufacturer, the FAA, and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models.”
The pilot union for American Airlines said that Boeing’s proposal for additional pilot training on the MAX doesn’t go far enough.
For instance, the pilot union wants, at a minimum, mandatory additional training to include video demonstrations of how to respond to failures of systems on the plane.
Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s Chairman, President & CEO
The current Boeing Chairman, President & CEO Dennis Muilenburg did express on the annual shareholder meeting on Monday that while “there was no surprise or gap or unknown here or something that somehow slipped through a certification process”, according to the Australian News.com.
He also denied allegations that the Max was rushed to market. Also, Mr. Muilenburg pointed to the pilots on the two flights, who he stated that they did not “completely” follow the standard procedure when uncommanded tail movements begin to push the jet’s nose down.
Even though the preliminary points to Boeing’s Flight Control System for the Ethiopian Crash, however, Muilenburg is pointing to whether their actions have contributed according to the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
B737 Max (Optional) Safety Equipment
Boeing decision of keeping cockpit warning lights optional was a best foolish, at worst a crass dereliction of duty, as CBS News reports. It costs $80,000 to place an extra warning light per plane.
Both Lion Air and Ethiopian decided against the warning light, using the logic that neither Boeing or FAA would allow selling an airplane that was on the security front grossly inadequate.
While it still is the safest mode of transport, having the model sold as it was, can be viewed as massive irresponsibility on the part of Boeing and the FAA.
What if Boeing had developed a new narrowbody airplane type instead of modernizing a 1960s originally designed B737?
Having a story about how regulators would have delayed an iconic American company product launch, costing billions of dollars, and have given the title of the most produced aircraft to Airbus, would have placed Boeing on a downward pressure to get results.
The fact that these two accidents happened reveals that Boeing under Muilenburg undercut itself by cutting corners.
A Scandal of Political Proportions & its Perceptions
Let’s be honest here, I also I’m studying for International Relations. At the intersection of Aviation and Politics there is lobbying, and the lobbying for aviation, defense and security are vast. And Boeing is no exception as they have a palpable presence on Capitol Hill.
Politics as usual
A previous administration who was more than happy to become their designed hitter in favor of keeping the Ex-Im Bank as in keeping the tradition of America’s Aerospace Industry, keeping alive the motto: “fly the flag.”
Now it is a controversy. The current administration, while friendly to the company once Canada grounded the Max airplanes, the FAA quickly invoke “ghost protocol” in grounding the planes as the administration does not need a quagmire.
There are more important things than the support of an aircraft. While the most critical decision was made during the last U.S. administration, Democrats cannot crack down on the issue, because they own what happened back in time.
Meanwhile, while the report of Robert Mueller goes around in circles in Capitol Hill, the current administration cannot be seen embroiled as they have “bigger fish to fry” like Trade, Healthcare, and Infrastructure.
What about Monetary Damages?
Anywhere one looks, from China to Norway, airlines are seeking damages. Damage claims include the families of the two accidents in which the Max Jet was involved.
According to the Seattle Times, Boeing created a “czar” to face all the legal matters that certainly Boeing is about to face.
The person who is responsible for the fallout of the Max-fiasco is J. Michael Luttig of 64 years, a former federal appeals court judge. He has served as the general counsel for the company since 2006.
The pronouncement was done yesterday evening, which elevates the situation to what it could be as one of the costliest fiascos in Boeing history. It could even escalate to become the most expensive in United States history.
While the relatives of the Max victims will have what I believe is one of the most robust cases for punitive and monetary damages, I personally think that there could be a class action suit on the part of the airlines and another for the relatives of the fallen.
How the Max accidents have affected airline growth
For the airlines, growth has been hindered as airlines cut yearly forecasts by as much as $60 million according to reliable sources.
(I personally believe it is much higher, around $150-200 million, as more airlines open the door to compensation).
SOX of 2002
The Corporate Governance of Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) of 2002 was created after the Enron fiasco, as companies “were cooking the books” financially.
SOX changes the management responsibility by strengthening the independent oversight of the board to serve effectively as a check on management according to Law.com.
While it is for accounting practice, it is also for effective corporate governance. Although I do not believe that separating the Chairman from the CEO post would be effective, Boeing during the last decade has behaved as a rogue company that has disregarded the safety of its customers and passengers.
While theoretically, SOX is about accounting and corporate governance it is on the latter that the independent board of Boeing has the power to invoke “Ghost Protocol” and disavow Mr. Muilenburg as a minimum.
Boeing Upper Management
Let the Board of Boeing chose its next CEO and decide in a vote with its shareholders. Having Mr. Muilenburg, there is disregarding the safety of the worldwide traveling public and let continue the behavior of this rogue company.
I would be satisfied if the entire Boeing Board would be disavowed and fired for allowing this to get out of proportion.
Featured photo: The cockpit of a grounded Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Indonesia. Photo courtesy: DIMAS ARDIAN/BLOOMBERG NEWS