Boeing owes the world answers regarding Max jet crashes



October 30, 2019 - 10:08 AM

Dennis Muilenburg, president and CEO of Boeing, appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.

When Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg goes before congressional committees this week, it might be the closest thing to a reckoning for the embattled corporation since two of its new 737 Max aircraft fell out of the sky in the past year, killing 346 people.

Lawmakers will undoubtedly ask Muilenburg to answer for a corporate culture that served as a backdrop for the tragedies — one where federal regulators were too chummy with airline designers, competition with rival Airbus led to shortcuts, and complex systems imposed on poorly trained foreign pilots were a recipe for disaster.

The world now knows what fundamentally went wrong, thanks to investigations by Indonesia, Ethiopia and a Federal Aviation Administration panel of experts. In both the crash of Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 last October and the loss of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 five month later, the linchpin in fatal cascades of errors was a sensor failure linked to a new automated flight control system designed by Boeing.


Loss of pilot control

Created to prevent the plane from stalling, the system was errantly triggered in each accident to repeatedly push the nose of the aircraft down, causing pilots to lose control.

Muilenburg testifies at a moment of crisis for his company. One of its hottest selling aircraft remains grounded, profits are sinking, Airbus is outstripping it in aircraft orders and the Justice Department is probing both crashes.

“We at Boeing are sorry for the loss of life in these tragedies,” he said in April, a refrain he is expect to repeat this week. In the months since hundreds died, Muilenburg and Boeing must have learned lessons. Assuming as much, here are five pertinent questions:

• Did competition with Airbus prove fatal? In a rush to compete with a new Airbus model providing better fuel efficiency, range and payload, Boeing recast the design of its top-selling 737, called it the Max, and avoided a more rigorous reclassification and retraining process by labeling it merely a newer version of the older 737. But the aircraft had new design features, including the problematic anti-stall software, that significantly differed from the older versions.

• Was the FAA too cozy with Boeing? For too long, the FAA has saved money by delegating regulatory authority to Boeing. The result in this case, according to the report by a panel of aviation experts, was that regulators learned about anti-stall software in “fragmented” fashion and couldn’t make an independent assessment of its safety, even as Boeing was rendering the software even more powerful.

• Does Boeing have more of a duty, before selling its planes, to ensure that poorly trained pilots of cut-rate airlines in developing nations can fly them? Boeing failed to brief commercials pilots about its anti-stall software. This was particularly crucial in poorer countries rife with corruption, where pilot training and experience are lacking. When Boeing sold Lion Air billions of dollars worth of Max 737s, it could have taken steps to make certain they understood the new aircraft’s intricacies. 

• What’s up with former Boeing chief technical pilot Mark Forkner? The FAA was furious this month to learn that Boeing withheld text messages by Forkner from 2016 in which he appears concerned about the anti-stall software. It turns out he might have been referencing concerns with a flight simulator. But he has declined to turn over documents to a grand jury, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

 • How do you win back the public’s trust? Boeing historically has been slow to admit errors and quick to deflect blame. But this reticence must give way to an aggressive, Tylenol-style marketing campaign to educate and reassure the public that Boeing has learned lessons and is committed to regaining customer confidence.

Airline crashes remain extraordinarily rare, which is why back-to-back crashes of brand new airliners were such a stunning system failure. Boeing has an opportunity this week to demonstrate that the system has changed, with short-term profits taking a back seat to a renewed commitment to safety.