Aviation: Boeing parks its 737 aspirations
It has been getting harder for staff to find parking spaces at Boeing’s Renton plant outside Seattle. For much of this year, the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer has been using the employee car park to store planes which it cannot deliver.
Renton is home to the 737 Max, the latest model of the best selling commercial jet in history. Since two fatal crashes prompted global regulators to ground the entire Max fleet in March, the plant’s 12,000 people have been confronted each day they arrive for work with hulking reminders of the biggest crisis in Boeing’s 103-year history.
The company has been producing 42 Max jets a month, even while it could not send them on to customers, leaving it with 400 “white tails” — finished planes awaiting airline liveries — in need of novel storage solutions.
They will soon have more room, after Boeing announced this week that it is halting production at Renton for an indefinite period. Employees will be parking at other nearby Boeing facilities where the $188bn company has promised to find them work.
Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s engineer-chief executive, had hoped the Max would be flying again by this summer, yet analysts now think it will not return until March 2020 at the earliest — almost 18 months after the first of two crashes, in Indonesia and Ethiopia, that killed 346 people. But even that might be optimistic — United Airlines said on Friday that the Max would not return to its fleet until June.
The crisis has not only cost America’s largest exporter billions of dollars: it has challenged many of the global aviation industry’s core assumptions about the political, regulatory and competitive context in which it operates.
Boeing’s announcement left employees who had feared lay-offs relieved, but it rattled suppliers who will find it harder to replace work lost during any prolonged interruption to orders.
With its shares down almost a quarter since March, and economists estimating that the disruption could shave half a percentage point off US gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2020, its troubles have also caught the attention of the passenger of its best known plane, Air Force One. Donald Trump reportedly called Mr Muilenburg on Sunday to ask about the company’s health highlighting that in election year the president will be weighing Boeing’s economic impact against his voters’ safety fears.
Boeing’s failure to put the Max crisis behind it has baffled even experts who have studied corporate crises, from Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 Tylenol pain relief recall, to BP’s Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster in 2010.
The drawn-out saga has few parallels, says Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, but he believes it stems from “tone-deaf” management and an inability to understand that Boeing’s world was changing even before the pride of its fleet proved fatally flawed.
When questions first arose about the role its MCAS anti-stall system played in the Max crashes, Mr McNulty argues, the company’s first reaction was to think “we’re Boeing; this can’t be happening to us”; it failed to question potential failings in its culture, its close relationship with its domestic regulator or its fast-changing market.
“When you have a worldview that makes sense it’s almost impossible to break out of it,” he adds: “The system made perfect sense until it didn’t.”
Boeing is accused of producing a flawed design for the MCAS system, which pushed the nose of the plane down when sensors detected it was about to stall. But Boeing opted to use one instead of two sensors to deliver that crucial data to the flight control system, leaving it exposed if the remaining sensor was defective. Compounding the problem, Boeing lobbied to keep information on the system out of the manual to avoid costly pilot training, arguing that crew should be able to handle the system from existing checklists.
One analyst, a former aerospace engineer, says: “I don’t think they think they did anything wrong. They think they designed an aeroplane that was fine and this never would have happened if they had pilots who knew what they were doing . . . Deep down inside they think they are being picked on.”
If Boeing has been blindsided by the hostile response to its predicament, that is partly because its status as one of America’s most politically significant companies has offered it surprisingly little protection. With plants dotted around the country, the company donated $4.2m to politicians of all stripes from 2016 to 2018. It also gave $1m toward Mr Trump’s inauguration.
But if it hoped such patronage would shelter it, it was mistaken. Boeing does not face insurmountable technical problems, says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of aviation consultancy Teal Group. Instead, “it’s a hideous mix of political pressure, messaging incompetence and regulatory misalignment” that is confronting the company.
In the view of one former supplier who asked not to be named, its problems with the Max began when the Federal Aviation Administration let it “ram through” alterations to a 737 design which was first certified in 1967, rather than face the more arduous approval process for an entirely new aircraft.
As House of Representatives and Senate committee members have learnt how keen Boeing was to avoid having the Max classified as a new jet, rather than an update of an old one, they have taken a tougher tone in questioning Mr Muilenburg and other executives.
The House transportation committee wants to find out who was pushing regulators to minimise how much training pilots would need on the Max. With 500,000 documents to review, its investigation has months to run.
“There is clearly a cultural issue at Boeing,” says one congressional official. “It is going to take a lot of things to turn this company around — a new leadership, and possibly a fresh perspective.”
Much of the scrutiny Boeing has faced on Capitol Hill has focused on a relationship with its domestic regulator that many now paint as excessively cosy. An official report from representatives of the FAA, Nasa and seven regulators, concluded that the FAA’s practice of delegating many of the steps required to certify an aircraft to Boeing’s own staff had created “conflicting priorities”.
Under fire, the FAA has appeared determined to demonstrate its distance.
Where once the regulator might have accepted Boeing’s reassurance that its aircraft were airworthy, now it is “reasserting itself”, Mr Aboulafia says.
The manufacturer’s timetable for getting approval for the Max to fly again was “not realistic”, the FAA said last week, reprimanding Boeing for appearing to try to “force” it into moving faster.
The FAA is not Boeing’s only concern. Despite a tradition of domestic regulators taking the lead in such decisions, China was the first country to ground the Max and the FAA’s international peers have all demanded a say in the process for getting it airborne again.
Authorities ranging from the European Aviation Safety Agency to Canada’s civil aviation body have peppered Boeing with questions. The FAA’s hopes of avoiding a piecemeal return to service have required unprecedented co-ordination with peers, which some in the US industry see as eager to challenge its standing as the leading regulator.
Their suspicions have been fed by other tensions between Washington and its trading partners. Mr Trump’s tariffs have sharpened competition with China, while the US recently won World Trade Organization backing for its case that the EU has provided unfair subsidies to Airbus, Boeing’s European rival.
Despite this win, one senior industry executive warns that “time is against Boeing” because the Max crisis may have set back the planned launch of its “new midsized aeroplane”, by three years. The popularity of Airbus’s recently launched A321XLR and re-engineered A330neo could leave little of the mid-market for it to go after, he says.
For now airlines faced with an effective duopoly between Boeing and Airbus cannot afford for either to fail. “The market needs [Boeing] to recover,” the executive says.
Despite the discomfort Mr Muilenburg showed while being grilled in October’s congressional hearings, many still expect Washington to temper its urge to punish the national champion.
“Boeing will receive all the support it needs to recover from airlines, the government, the agencies,” the executive says. “Boeing was too optimistic and arrogant in the way it predicted the aircraft would fly again but the FAA and EASA will authorise the 737 to fly again.”
If Boeing has had to rethink its assumptions about Washington and the wider regulatory environment, it has had to do the same with its planes.
The company faced angry reactions when it suggested earlier in the year that its errors with MCAS had been just one link in a “chain of events” but the pilot error at which it hinted remains a concern for manufacturers and regulators.
As the industry’s growth forecasts depend on emerging markets, Boeing faces the need to reassess its different pilot training programmes. That will mean building more technological safety nets into cockpits, and a level of automation which it had resisted.
The Boeing board, for now, is trusting Mr Muilenburg to execute these longer-term shifts, even while leading the urgent work to return the Max to the skies and responding to challenges like the malfunction which prevented its Starliner astronaut capsule from reaching the International Space Station on Friday.
But the chief executive will have one eye on the planes sitting in the Renton car park. A 737 does not take well to being grounded: its tyres go flat, its electronics need retesting, and its engine must be turned over. Much like one of the cars at Renton, one employee says, “you’ve got to take it out for a spin”.