Boeing’s cultural problem

I used to board a Boeing plane with confidence. Often I’d check the builder’s (or data) plate on the inside of the door to learn when the plane went into service. I figured a newer plane was safer than an older one. The 737 Max disabused me of that notion, which leads me to Boeing’s  culture in which safety took a back seat to profits.

Two 737 Max crashes claimed 346 lives under the watch of Dennis Muilenberg, who was just fired as CEO. That his end followed within hours of the appearance of a New York Times story detailing his mishandling of the crisis makes one wonder if the board was really on top of the deteriorating session. According to the Times, the board had reaffirmed Muilenberg’s position as recently as Friday.

In apparent desperation, he unsuccessfully pressured the FAA to allow the Max to fly again. He failed to mollify angry and frantic airline CEOs who watched their profits sink because they didn’t have the planes they needed. Since the plane was grounded 10 months ago, he kept promising it fly soon. At this juncture, there’s no indication when the Max will fly again if at all.

Rushing planes out the door started long before him. When I covered Boeing, the company’s head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes Scott Carson abruptly retired in 2009 after repeated delays in the launch of the 787 Dreamliner (A contact of mine in 2007 was 787 chief project engineer Tom Cogan, who also was transferred to another job amid the repeated delays). And in October, former head of Commercial Airplanes Kevin McAllister took the fall for the 737 Max debacle.

My point is this: Boeing is not making widgets. It’s developing enormously complex tubes that cruise at 600 mph 35,000 above the ground and by the way, are jammed with humans. That safety is paramount can’t be said and emphasized enough. Boeing has been immensely profitable, but slavish worship of earnings has come back to haunt the company and erode  its reputation for safety at all cost. Will the Max fly again? Should it? I have to think Boeing executives regret the fateful decision not to put the fabulously successful 737 line out to pasture in 2010 and build an entirely new midsize jet. Retrofitting the 737 and from its last variant, the 737NG and several stretch versions, was probably a mistake, but there’s no turning back the clock.

In a sense, it’s our patriotic duty to want Boeing to succeed. The company is the nation’s largest  exporter so Boeing’s failure to recover would be disaster for the economy. I, for one, hope the company emerges from this mess stronger and more safety conscious than ever. That will require new leadership and a major shift to a ‘safety first always’ culture up and down the ranks. Safety should come before profits at any company, but never any more than at a company that makes airplanes.

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