Boeing is still hiding something

By Erik Dolson

I’d been working on a blog saying that Boeing chief Dennis Muilenburg had to go. Boeing beat me to it. Meulenberg was let go over the weekend before I could publish.

Muilenburg was clumsy through the crisis following the crash of two of its new 737 Max airplanes that killed 346 people. He applied political pressure and embarrassed the Federal Aviation Administration, which delayed grounding the airliner until many other nations had already done so. He repeated “Safety is our number one priority” long after that was obviously untrue. He failed to effectively communicate with his customers, the major airlines.

But it’s now critical for Boeing to accept that the tragedies resulted from deeper issues within the company that predate Muilenburg’s fraught leadership. Boeing has a cultural problem that has been stewing for decades. 

This is not a secret. Conversations with current and former Boeing employees uncover a uniform thread that runs all the way to the 737 Max: Boeing’s culture veered from making the best airliners in the world to profit and growth for its own sake.

It will not be easy nor quick for Boeing to recover. Huge damage has been done, not only to the reputation of the company but to internal resources. Good people whose primary goal was quality have been lost. Systems that provided feedback loops for safety have atrophied. Trust, within the company and in the company by customers around the world, has been squandered. It will take years, if not decades, to rebuild.

Boeing has been in denial about this cultural problem. Like an alcoholic who has been successful in business for years, Boeing has relied on presentation and powerful friends to hide core weakness. But Boeing lives in a world defined by physicis. Boeing’s attempt to fool the world has become unmanageable.

There’s a recipe for recovery that’s strangely appropriate. To paraphrase: “…Those who do not recover … are constitutionally incapable of grasping and developing … rigorous honesty… be fearless and thorough from the very start.” 

The 737 Max crisis reeks from lack of honesty. Boeing tried to pass a new engine configuration off as having the same characteristics as older 737s currently flying; said no additional pilot training was required; blamed pilots of the crashed planes; presented a fatuous power point to the FAA instead of a book of actual software changes. Boeing has been trying to buy time.

Boeing is still hiding something, despite Muilenburg’s “resignation.” If I had to guess, it’s the divergent flight characteristics caused by relocating the planes new engines further forward on the wing. Simply stated, a passenger plane is supposed to “converge” to straight and level flight at a certian throttle configuration. 

With “divergent “characteristics,” an abnormal situation will get worse, or “diverge” from straight and level, because of the abnormal condition. The new engine location causes the nose of the airplane to pitch up further when it’s already too high.

In the case of the two crashed airliners, a single (!) faulty sensor may have triggered an automated response in software designed to compensate for the divergent condition, and to make the plane seem to fly like older 737’s without the new engines. The software pushed the nose down, and the planes flew into the ground.

This may not be curable by software changes. Some regulators elsewhere in the world, and maybe even the FAA now that it seems to have found some spine when it comes to Boeing, may not approve a plane that has divergent flight characteristics. Airlines that purchased the plane may want their money back.

This could break the company.

Boeing may recover, but can no longer exist in denial. It will be fascinating to watch how the company deals with the crisis moving forward.

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About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon

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