The maximum tragedy of the 737 and the downfall of Boeing – what have we learned?

When Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas in December 1996, it seemed clear who would win. The American aerospace and defense giant will be called Boeing. Its headquarters will be in Seattle, Boeing’s home town. Philip Condit, Boeing’s chief executive officer, will head the merged company. Harry Stonecipher, the head of McDonnell Douglas, will take on a more junior role than chairman and chief executive officer. Two-thirds of the board will be Boeing executives. Advertised as an amalgamation of the fair, it is anything but. My article, as the FT’s then aerospace correspondent, was titled “Boeing is the boss despite the brave faces”.

In Flying blindPeter Robison, a journalist for Bloomberg News, argues that the opposite has happened. McDonnell Douglas executives, headed by Stonecipher, have adopted the mentality of pleasing shareholders, cutting costs, reaping profits at all costs. That led to a disregard for passenger safety, to a disregard for passenger safety, leading to the most catastrophic event in Boeing’s more than century-old history: two Boeing plane crashes. The new 737 Max, in 2018 and 2019, flies by Lion Air of Indonesia and Ethiopian Airlines respectively, resulting in the deaths of 346 people.

Boeing was disgraced by subsequent investigations. Determined to get the 737 Max out of the factory door at the lowest cost, they ignored warnings that the plane was unsafe. In the presence of the bereaved, US lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agreed in the hearings to deliver a once-in-a-lifetime indicator of US industry.

The problems behind the 737 Max lie with Boeing Bitter battle with Airbus. The European manufacturer’s A320 aircraft is considered by many airlines to be superior to existing 737 models. For Boeing, this is an unacceptable reversal. The original Boeing 737s, first introduced in the 1960s, kept the world aloft. Before the Covid-19 plane was grounded, every 1.5 seconds a Boeing 737 took off or landed somewhere.

To completely replace the older 737s will require about $20 billion to develop. Instead, Boeing upgraded the current model, at a cost of just $2.5 billion. The Max will have a larger, more fuel-efficient engine, because the 737 is so low that it will have to be mounted forward on the wings. This tends to tilt the plane up during flight, which can cause it to stall, so Boeing installed some software, triggered by a single sensor, to force the plane’s nose down. .

Boeing has convinced the US Federal Aviation Administration that pilots on existing 737s do not require simulation training to fly the 737 Max. When Lion Air requested simulation training, Boeing told them about it. A Boeing pilot, tasked with writing aircraft manuals, was disturbed by his own experience with the 737 Max in the simulation. When the software started, he struggled to control the plane. “I like, WHAT?” he emailed a colleague. But Boeing omitted any mention of the software in the manual, except in the glossary.

How did the plane win regulatory approval? Robison details the history of the FAA being seized by Boeing, a process that began with directives from the Clinton and George W Bush administrations that the agency be more business-friendly. Boeing was effectively allowed to approve its own safety, with FAA officials reporting to them rather than vice versa.

The most influential parts of this book are Robison’s portrayal of those who died in the crashes that followed, and their battle for responsibility from a company that tried to blame the incompetence of the pilots. foreign public.

Robison makes a compelling case for the cultural takeover of Boeing by McDonnell Douglas; Stonecipher, a man’s fearsome bear, replaced Condit, before he himself was enable obscene emails he sent an employee with whom he was having an affair. But Robison’s tendency to idealize the pre-merger Boeing, he said, had “perfectionism in its DNA”. He wrote that Boeing factories were confiscated in 1997, while the company was trying to ramp up production, as managers were distracted by the merger. In fact, Boeing’s parts acquisition and design has been messy for years, relying on a combination of paperwork and 400 separate computer systems. Even before McDonnell Douglas showed up, Boeing executives had underestimated Airbus, dismissing any suggestion that it had something to learn from its rival.

Beyond that, it’s a compelling, deeply narrated account, written with controlled fury. It is an indictment not only of one of America’s most famous companies, but of an entire era: of politicians who believe business is for the best, of managers who bend to their will. , and shareholder return outweighs any consideration for the rest of society, including consumers’ safety – and lives. Only when the pandemic is over and business, soaring, resumes in full swing, will we know how much we’ve learned.

Flying blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing by Peter Robinson, Double $30 / Penguin Business £20, 327 pages

Michael Skapinker is a contributing editor for FT

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