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.

IAG Boost for Boeing

Courtesy Boeing

British Airways owner IAG made a bold decision at the Paris Air Show when it announced a tentative order of 200 Boeing B737 MAX jet. It must have surprised quite a number of industry folk to come so soon after the fatal Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines incidents, and that the aircraft is still being grounded. After all, Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg had said participation at the Paris Air Show for Boeing was not about getting new aircraft orders but to restore confidence in the MAX jet. IAG’s support has certainly given Boeing that much needed boost.

Now, is IAG being too hasty at a time when many people are still not comfortable about thinking of flying the MAX as it stays grounded? Clearly the European airline group which also operates Iberia, Aer Lingus and budget carriers Vueling and Level is convinced the time will come, and when it does, IAG partners are ready ahead of others. It is not as if the aircraft will be delivered to IAG’s doorsteps the following morning. And with that conviction, now may be an excellent time to cut a good deal when Boeing is hungry to regain customers’ favour.

It would be a tad too altruistic to think IAG’s decision was a deliberate move for the benefit of the airline community, so as to keep the competition between Boeing and Airbus alive. As it is, Airbus which announced a new version of the A321 at the Paris Air Show, is not hiding its disappointment over the IAG-Boeing deal, noting that IAG had not issued a formal tender and staring Airbus’ interest in bidding for the order.

“We would like a chance to compete for that business,” Airbus chief commercial officer Christian Scherer told reporters at the show.

Now, given the boost by IAG, Boeing said it was in talks with a number of other airlines for sales of its MAX jet. It needed to keep up the momentum.

The big question still remains as to when the MAX jet will get off the ground. IAG may be right that time heals, and many travellers will eventually get back to flying the MAX jet whether out of necessity or expedience. Obviously the traveller doesn’t figure in the equation. After all, how many people are actually finicky about the make of the aircraft that they are flying? There will be some, but will the number be material enough to make the airlines think twice?

No new spin: Boeing sings the same apologetic tune

Courtesy Getty Images

The Paris Air Show (June 17 to 23) should provide an opportunity for aircraft manufacturer Boeing to clear the air of any misgiving and doubt that industry players may have of the company’s commitment to production priorities following the B737-800 MAX 8 disasters and the unsavoury stories that have unfolded since the two incidents involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines.

It will be a mammoth effort trying to regain customer trust particularly in light of how many travellers surveyed have indicated they would not ever fly the MAX jet even after the authorities have cleared it for service resumption. So far it is anybody’s guess as to when the grounding will be lifted. The date keeps pushing into the future.

Airlines which own a sizeable fleet of the MAX, having reported the cancellation of thousands of flights since the grounding, may be keen to see it back up in the air sooner. American Airlines which owns a fleet of 24 jets is pre-empting an October date.

But the authorities want to be more conservative this time as they grapple with issues of training and procedures with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) thinking it may be longer than that. Canadian transportation authorities for one are insisting on simulator training which Boeing, the FAA and American carriers think would not be necessary.

Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg all but knows too well the score. Quite wisely he had said of the Paris Air Show: “This is a different show for us, it is not about orders. It is really focused on safety and the safe return of the Max flight.”

Boeing had reported no new commercial aircraft orders in May, although according to Mr Mullenberg, the company had more than 4,000 orders of the MAX jet in backlog. He is expecting to see the aircraft back in the air by the end of the year, but the timeline is still not specific if not uncertain. Reports seem to be ambivalent as to whether the software glitch of the computer system known as MCAS has been definitively fixed or that Boeing is still working on the update.

The hardware may not be as difficult an issue to handle as that which concerns public opinion, perception and reservations. So in doses Boeing is dishing out apologetic messages but falling short of admitting sole responsibility for the tragic MAX incidents.

Mr Mullenberg expressed disappointment that Boeing had not been more transparent with regulators and the public when it discovered a safety light was not operating as designed. He echoed Boeing vice-president Gordon Johndroe who said ahead of the Paris Air Show: “We clearly fell short in the implementation of the AOA disagree alert and we clearly should have communicated better with our regulators and the airlines.”

And, one wonders, what would have had happened then?

Clearly the road ahead for Boeing is marked with PR pointers to appeal to the heart for understanding and perhaps implicitly forgiveness without admitting liability. It knows that the airlines who were operating the MAX before its grounding have much to lose if they do not work together to get the aircraft safely back in the air.

Some more Boeing woes: Shoddy work at manufacturing plant

As Boeing works at regaining the trust of travellers in the B737 Max 8 jet (following the crashes of an Ethiopian Airlines jet and a Lion Air jet in similar circumstances), assuring them that the software fix to the anti-stall system will make it the safest aircraft to fly the skies, new issues that have surfaced aren’t helping.

A New Times report (April 23, 2019) stated that the Boeing factory in North Charleston (South Carolina) that makes the 787 Dreamliner “has been plagued by shoddy production and weak oversight that have threatened to compromise safety.”

Whistle-blowers have pointed out defective manufacturing resulting from faulty parts being installed, debris left on planes dangerously close to wiring beneath the cockpits, and pressure to not report violations. The debris includes tools, metal shavings, Bubble Wrap and chewing gum, and it is alleged that customers had found random objects in new planes.

One airline – Qatar Airways – it seems, was so upset that it has since 2014 bought only planes built in Boeing’s main plant in Everett. It may sound ridiculous, but will travellers now go checking where the Dreamliners operated by other airlines were built, as a supermarket shopper would ordinarily do?

While the public may understand the risk of a mechanical failure of any machine, it is quite a different thing when the problem lies in a culture of not caring enough to ensure that the safety of the traveller comes before all else, that kind of trust that travellers must have in the product such as a plane.

Pushing production to meet deadlines at all cost and compromising safety standards can only rattle the traveller’s confidence. Already more than 50 per cent of Americans have said they will not fly the Max jet, even if the problem has been fixed.

And now the concern is extended to the Dreamliner. What next?

The New York Times report raises many concerns, top of which is how the management had turned a blind eye to complaints by the staff. Some of them alleged they had been punished or fired when they voiced concerns.

Two former managers said they were pushed to cover up production delays and employees were told to install equipment out of order to make it appear production was on schedule. In fact, Qatar’s beef was that Boeing was not being “transparent” about the cause of production delay.

What about the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s role in all this, particularly when in the Max investigations the agency the agency had been censured for allowing Boeing to self-certify?

According to the New York Times report, an FAA spokesman, Lynn Lunsford, said the agency found metal silvers in several planes certified by Boeing as free of debris.

The FAA issued a directive in 2017 requiring that Dreamliners be cleared of shavings before they are delivered. However, it was determined that the issue does not present a flight safety issue.

Boeing has all along insisted the Max is a safe aircraft and that there are procedures in place to correct errors presented by the anti-stall system. The software fix to be implemented is meant to make a safe aircraft “safer”.

Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg, courtesy CNBC

Today Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg echoed the same line, saying on Monday April 29 that the pilots of the fateful Ethiopian Airlines flight did not “completely” follow the although Ethiopian officials said earlier they did but could not control the plane.

Mr Mullenberg said: “When we design these systems, understand that these airplanes are flown in the hands of pilots.” Without saying as much, the competence of the pilots or their familiarity with the procedures has been called into question. “Going forward we have identified a way to improve,” he added, “I am confident that that again will make one of the safest airplanes in the air to fly”

Those words of assurance have since been uttered often and will continue to be repeated as Boeing faces the uphill task of regaining trust in the improved Max jet. More than their airline customers – some of whom have stood staunchly by Boeing – it is the majority of travelling end-users that they need to convince.

Will you take a Boeing 737 MAX flight again?

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/will-you-fly-b737-max-8-jet