FAA is doing Boeing a favor, delaying Max re-certification

Courtesy Getty Images

The B737 Max fallout has affected not only the credibility of Boeing as the aircraft manufacturer but also that of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the regulator. (See Are there more skeletons in the Boeing cupboard? Jan 10, 2020; A new beginning for Boeing? Dec 23, 2019)

The B737 Max fallout has affected not only the credibility of Boeing as the aircraft manufacturer but also that of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the regulator.

FAA has been censured for oversight laxity when it allowed Boeing to self-certify. If it had been a friend and supporter of Boeing in the early days of the disasters of two Max air crashes involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines five months apart, it has distanced itself in working its own agenda to repair its own reputation.

Clearly FAA wants to be seen to be reasserting its authority as regulator. Its chief administrator Steve Dickson has made it known that “the FAA fully controls the approval process” and will not rush the certification at the bidding of Boeing.

To show it is serious about how Boeing had misled the FAA, the regulator is seeking to fine the aircraft manufacturer US$5.4 million for “knowingly” installing faulty parts on the Max jet, following the release of internal staff communications, one of which mentioned that the plane was “designed by clowns”. (See Are there any more skeletons in the Boeing cupboard? Jan 10, 2020)

Looking back, FAA may be wishing it had acted sooner to ground the Max jet after China became the first country to do so, followed by the rest of the world while the United States tarried, insisting at that time there was no reason to suspect the aircraft’s safety.

That, despite the revelation now of a November 2018 internal FAA analysis made after the Lion Air crash that the Max could have averaged one fatal crash about every two or three years. Whatever counter measures FAA might have taken then proved to be inadequate to prevent the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

In the words of the chairman of the House Transportation Committee Peter DeFazio, “FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the travelling public and let the 737 MAX continue to fly.”

This has led to other regulatory authorities such as Canada and the European Union setting their own criteria for approval even as FAA has made it known it is implementing stringent tests to ensure that Max is safe.

One issue has to do with the need for pilot training. It has been revealed lately that in a March 2017 email, then Boeing’s 737 chief technical pilot Mark Forkner wrote: “I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required to transition from NG to Max.”

Apparently that was to cut back cost to make the price of the plane more attractive to customers, speed up aircraft production and hasten FAA approval. Boeing continued to maintain that position in the aftermath of the air disasters despite a number of regulators including Canada and the European Union insisting on the requirement. Only this week has Boeing agreed to reverse its decision and recommend Max simulator training for all pilots.

FAA in renewing its commitment to be thorough as it had not been before is in fact doing Boeing a favour by delaying approval of the new MAX, thus allowing time to heal and repair the unfortunate perception.

Are there any more skeletons in the Boeing cupboard?

In my last post, I asked if 2020 would mark a new beginning for Boeing with the appointment of a new CEO – David Calhoun – to replace Dennis Mullenberg who had held on with the support of the Boeing Board of Directors. (See A New Beginning for Boeing? Dec 23, 2019)

Courtesy Boeing

If Boeing were a Japanese company,Mr Mullenberg would have long stepped down following two fatal B737 Max crashes involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines within five months of each other. And it would likely be seen as a voluntary leadership gesture to shoulder the responsibility for what had happened.

It took the Board more than a year from the time of the first crash to fire Mr Mullenberg as the pressure piled up, pushing it to recognize – in its own words – that “a change in leadership was necessary o restore confidence in the company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders.”

For too long, Boeing had stagnated in the denial mode, which was not unexpected at the onset. But as the company dug in its heels to deny any fault on its part, the defence soon became untenable, worsened by reports about its suspect work ethos at the plants. As recent as October, one of the company’s employees was said to have misled FAA about MAX’s MCAS anti-stall technology, and that he had “basically lied” to the regulator.

One wonders how many more skeletons are left in the cupboard. Here is now the opportunity for the new Boeing to make a clean sweep of its house, or the continuing saga of mismanagement, lies and deception will hang over its shoulders like the ancient mariner’s albatross.

The release of yet another batch of company communications between employees have raised more questions of the Max jet if at all they were anything new.

One employee said in 2017: “This airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”

The language might be seen to be a stretch too far, but the frustrations translated into concerns were clearly there.

Another employee wrote: “Would you put your family on a Max simulator-trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”

These redacted communications were said to be released by Boeing as part of its commitment to transparency, unlike previous criticisms of the slack work ethos at its plants.

The company itself may be said to have not helped contain the narrative from becoming one more about its trustworthiness as a company than the air crashes. While it pushes to get Max back in the air soonest, it has failed to understand the ramifications of its largely perceived insensitive and self-preserving approach.

Could this have come earlier? That lost opportunity is now water under the bridge, but public perception of Boeing as a company driven by profit at the expense of passenger’s safety has been so galvanized by the stories thus far that it is not going to be one easy to put to rest in a long time. And certainly not if more skeletons keep falling out of the Boeing cupboard.

A New Beginning for Boeing?

It has certainly been a bad year for Boeing, following the grounding of the B737 MAX jet in March after two fatal crashes that killed 346 people.

Boeing had hoped that the jet would be put back into service before the end of the year, but of course is out of the question now. While some remain hopeful of a late January or February date, many airlines are now resigned to it being longer. American Airlines, for one, has moved schedules for its likely operations to April, to avoid disruptions.

One thing clear is that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is asserting (or resuming) control of the situation after the bad press of lax oversight. FAA has said it will take all the time that it needs to ensure that the the MAX is safe. It said in a statement that “the agency will not approve the aircraft for return to service until it has completed numerous rounds of rigorous testing.”

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson has made it clear that “the FAA fully controls the approval process” and will not rush the certification at the request of Boeing.

News reports about the shoddy work at the Boeing plants continue to damage the manufacturer’s credibility. In October, one of the company’s employees was said to have misled the FAA about the Max’s MCAS anti-stall technology, that he had “basically lied” to the regulator. That raised more alarm bells.

Courtesy CNBC

There has been a lot of pressure on Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg to resign his post, not least from the US Congress. But Mullenberg held on with the support of the Board of Directors, which conceded a little by stripping him of his Chairman title but continued to express confidence in his leadership. They were to finally fully concede as Congress questioned among other things why Mullenberg hasn’t given up his pay (US$23 million in 2018) and suggested that the buck should stop with him in “a culture of negligence, incompetence and corruption”.

Mullenberg is stepping down with immediate effect, to be succeeded by the current chairman David Calhoun who will on January 13 assume the CEO post as well. In the interim, CFO Greg Smith will be at the helm.

In a statement issued by Boeing, “the Board of Directors decided that a change in leadership was necessary to restore confidence in the Company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders.”

Could this have come earlier? No use looking back, but if it was a clean break that Boeing was looking to make, it had dragged its feet. For too long, the saga continued to hang over its shoulder like the albatross of Coleridge’s ancient mariner.

The uncertainty of the delay in putting the MAX back into service has forced the company to suspend production of the aircraft. Confidence in the company is slipping, and whether Qantas’ decision to pick pick Airbus over Boeing to fly the world’s longest route from Sydney to London is an indication of this or not, the timing doesn’t help. Worse, the problems of the MAX have coloured the traveller’s perception of the other jets in the same family. Boeing knows only too well that satisfying the regulator and customer airlines of the MAX’s safety is one thing, but regaining the confidence of travellers is another, which may turn out to be a greater hurdle.

Now with Mullenberg’s resignation, will the new year mark a clean break for Boeing? Seems aptly so if it could clean out whatever else is left of the skeletons in its cupboard.

Review: From Singapore to Seoul vv on Korean Air

When I was planning a trip from Songapore to Seoul last month, I had intended to fly either Singapore Airlines or Asiana Airlines. I decided to go with Asiana as it was the cheaper option. However, when I completed my online booking, a different fare was shown.

It so happened that Korean Air in conjunction with a local bank was promoting a fare that was even lower.

Photo by DL

Although I had flown Korean Air before, I confess that I had not thought of Korean Air this time because comparing the two Korean carriers, I had been prejudiced by the many surveys particularly Skytrax which continually favoured Asiana over the years. But the Korean Air offer was too good to resist.

KE 646 departing SIN 01:30 arriving ICN 08:50
KE 647 departing ICN 23:10 arriving SIN 05:00+1

I flew Economy.

Flight

What’s good about a red-eye flight is that you travel at a relatively off-peak time, and you can try to get some sleep during the journey (as would be the normal thing to do at the time) before arriving in daylight.

I have never flown a more quiet flight in all aspects – there was little movement and hardly any unnerving noise made by the passengers. Quite unlike my experiences flying Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific long distance when the call button kept ringing throughout the flight. Understandably the distance may make a difference. In any case, this was a pleasant change.

Crew

They were good, the female flight attendants looking most impressive in their exquisite attire. Above all, they were polite and pleasant.

Unlike the crew of most other major carriers (not excluding the big names known for reputable customer service) who would gather behind the curtain in the back galley between meals, there was at least one attendant who would maintain his or her presence in the assigned station throughout the flight.

Food

Good. I liked the choice of a local Korean option out of Seoul.

Toilet

Surprisingly clean. It was observed that the crew would make frequent checks.

Ground service

But ground service seemed to be less than satisfactory. At Singapore Changi Airport, the check-in agent could be a little friendlier and less perfunctory. By comparison, the check-in agent at Incheon International Airport was more customer-friendly, showing a readiness to assist.

The flight departs and arrives at Changi’s Terminal 4, which means you will have to ride the shuttle to Terminal 2 if you are commuting by subway.

At ICN, Korean Air operates out of Termninal 2, which seems spartan compared to the bustling Terminal 1. By 9 pm, it would be hard-put to find a restaurant (or anything else to amuse oneself) except the 7-11 convenience store.

Will I fly this route on Korean Air again?

Certainly YES. Worthy of note is that while Asiana Airlines has lost its place in the Skytrax survey as one of the world’s best, the top 25 airlines for 2020 ranked by AirlinesRatings include Korean Air but not its rival.

What’s behind the partnership between Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines?

This article was published in Today on 26 November 2019

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/whats-behind-partnership-between-singapore-airlines-and-malaysia-airlines

Review: From Seattle to Singapore vv on Singapore Airlines

I decided I might try the non-stop Seattle-Singapore run by Singapore Airlines (SIA), a route that has taken SIA a long time to introduce after decades of its inaugural flight to the United States. I flew economy.

Flight time

The flight was not as long as I had expected, between 14 and 16 hours. Not much of a jet lag if you managed to catch some shut-eye, arriving in good time for dinner in Singapore, and for an early breakfast (if you need one) in Seattle the other way around.

SQ27, Seattle to Singapore departing SEA 10:40 and arriving SIN 17:30 (15 hours 50 mins)
SQ 28, Singapore to Seattle departing SIN 09:25 and arriving SEA 07:25 (14 hours)

Inflight movies

Both ways, I was unable to find a movie that I would find myself hooked on watching despite the wide selection. Disappointing in a way, as I was looking forward to catching up on the latest blockbusters, but that landed me easily into doing the next best thing on a long flight, getting some needed rest.

Broken seats

The seat was comfortable enough compared to most other airlines.

Unfortunately, out of Seattle, I was seated behind a passenger who had a broken seat, which kept rocking to and fro every time that he moved. The seat could not be positioned upright during take-off or landing, and during the meal service. We brought this to the attention of the crew who responded with a shrug of the shoulder. So it was left to us to manage the situation during the meal service, and the passenger in front kindlyt offered paper napkins to mop up some spillage during the process.

(When I provided the feedback online after the flight, SIA responded with an apology and said the crew would have arranged for a change of seat under the normal circumstances. Well, they knew and they didn’t.)

Just my luck that when I flew Singapore to Seattle, I had a seat which was difficult to adjust and the crew had to forcibly move it upright as required. At least they tried. Looks to me this aspect needs a little attention, whether pre or post flight. It would seem that it is only looked into if the crew had logged it in.

Meals

Picture: DL

I would say SIA was generous in offering three entree choices and the portions were substantial. Nasi lemak for breakfast out of Singapore was a nice local touch.

However, I thought breakfast came too soon after dinner five and a half hours before arriving in Seattle, particularly when snacks were served in between the meals (and after breakfast too). That means it may be difficult to have a good rest with all the bustling movement in the cabin. Besides, you could’t be that hungry though maybe for the exceptional few.

Toilets

Suffice to say that all the toilets all the way from Singapore to Seattle were FILTHY. Blame the passengers?

Crew

Efficient, but I miss the magic of the Singapore Girl of yore. They are still good, but some competitor airlines have become as good.

The plus is that SIA has more crew members than most other airlines, so you get attended to quickly when you need something.

I would commend the crew out of Singapore for their enthusiasm. I had not seen a more lively team.

Ground Service

I did interline check-in. Processing at SEATAC was smooth. However, check-in at Singapore Changi Aiport Terminal 3 was a hassle. I went to Row 4 (as indicated on the signboard) to bag-drop. There was an issue at the self-self kiosk. I signalled to a staff member uniformed in a a red jacket (there were a number of them hanging around outside the check-in area), but she just stood rooted to the ground, seeing me but not moving. I approached her and she followed me reluctantly. At the machine, she said I had to go to Counter 10 at Row 3 since I was travelling to the US. (I wished thiere was a sign at the booth that stated this).

So, over to Counter 10 at Row 3, and it took more than 10 minutes waiting my turn although there was only on passenger ahead of me. Then, the next blow after check-in: I was told I had to take a train to the gate at Terminal 1. Movement between terminals can be a nuisance albeit in this case via skytrain, the very reason why I chose SIA over Cathay Pacific this time because I didn’t like the inconvenience of going by shuttle to Terminal 4 when I arrived at Changi via subway.

Will I fly this route again on SIA?

Ah well, I was sufficiently encouraged to say “yes” (if not, sufficiently discouraged to say “no”). I like it being non-stop.

Protecting the consumer rights of air travellers

This article was published in Today, 25 October 2019.

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/protecting-consumer-rights-air-travellers