Safety

Opinion: Boeing “owns” 737 Max challenges – until it doesn’t

An Air Canada Boeing 737 Max 8 departs Vancouver International Airport in February. (photo: Brett Ballah).

Dennis Muilenburg, the chief executive of Boeing, started a morning conference call with investors on a scripted contrite note, expressing regret for a pair of fatal crashes of Boeing 737 Max aircraft less than five months apart.

“We all feel the loss and the gravity of these events personally, and we continue to extend our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones passengers and crews onboard the flights,” said Boeing’s President and Chief Executive.

“We know every person who steps aboard one of our airplanes places our trust in us, and we are committed to earning and re-earning that trust and confidence,” he said.

“We own it.”

But when Muilenburg was pressed on the question, it became clear that Boeing “owning it” has limits.

During a recent conference call with analysts and reporters, the first cracks in the owning it narrative appeared in response to a question from Ron Epstein with Merill-Lynch who asked, “How did this happen? This sort of came out of nowhere.

“Because it didn’t seem like there was a lot of new science going on, here, right? I mean, the 78 [Dreamliner], there was a lot of new science; this seemed to be applications of existing technology to an existing platform.”

“Ron, there is no technical slip or gap here,” responded Muilenburg, already starting to undo ownership of Max challenges.

“We know that both accidents were a series of events. That is very common to all accidents that we’ve seen in history. What we know in this case is that there was erroneous angle of attack information that came into the airplane from multiple causes. We know that at some point during the flight, that activated the MCAS control laws. And we know that ultimately there were actions or actions not taken that contributed to the final outcome (emphasis added).

“I can tell you with confidence that we understand our airplane, we understand how the design was accomplished, how the certification was accomplished, and remain fully confident in the product we put in the field. But we also know there are areas where we can improve, and that is of course the software update here.

“But there was no surprise, or gap, or unknown here or something that somehow slipped through a certification process (emphasis added). Quite the opposite. We know exactly how the airplane was designed, we know exactly how to certify it. We have taken the time to understand that. That has led to the software update that we have been implementing and testing, and we’re very confident when the fleet comes back up, the Max will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly.”

Muilenburg is right that accidents are a series of events. But the greatest leap in aviation safety came when investigators started looking at the whole system that allowed an error to happen (for a great explanation, see “What is Pilot Error?” by J Mac McClellan).

The fear, and the risk for Boeing, is that the company becomes perceived in the public eye as putting a flawed product on the market, and then patching the problem with a software fix. The 737 airframe design is 52 years old, having first flown in April 1967. The Max introduced the largest engines ever fitted on the 737, and changed some of the flying characteristics – the MCAS software compensated for that fundamental design.

“We remain confident in the fundamental [certification] processes,” said Muilenburg. “If we find any opportunities to improve we certainly will adopt those on a going-forward basis.”

The confidence stakes could not be higher for Boeing. The company sees a market for 31,000 single-aisle airplanes in the next 20 years, and Boeing is banking on the Max as its offer to fill that need, in the face of rising competition from Airbus, and likely new entrants from China in that timeframe.

The Max has a backlog of 4400 orders, and production is sold out into early next decade.

“Our current first order of business,” said Muilenberg, “is the safe return to service of the 737 Max.”

Muilenburg said Boeing had completed 135 flights with the revised software installed, for a total flight time of 230 hours. The company expects to move to Federal Aviation Administration certification within a short time.

“We think a key voice in all of this will be the pilots for our airlines. Their voice is very important. That bond between the passenger and the pilot is one that is critical.”

Boeing said pilots from nearly 90% of the more than 50 Max operators worldwide have also participated in simulator sessions with the software fix.

“The pilot feedback from those simulator sessions has been excellent,” said Muilenburg, “and I think has been a big part of building confidence in how we talk about this going forward.

“This is a place where Boeing is going to make an investment. We know it’s important to earn and re-earn the trust [of the flying public], and this will be done jointly with our airline customers, pilots, flight crews, flight attendants, everybody that supports these airplanes, and we know that will take time.”

The challenge with establishing trust it that it’s easy to lose. It’s built when someone takes ownership of a problem from beginning to end, and not sharing blame with those “actions or actions not taken that contributed to the final outcome.”

The aircraft will undergo re-certification before it can fly again. Nine civilian agencies have signed on with the FAA to conduct a Max technical review.

“The team will evaluate aspects of the 737 MAX automated flight control system,” said the FAA in an update released Good Friday, “including its design and pilots’ interaction with the system, to determine its compliance with all applicable regulations and to identify future enhancements that might be needed.”

They will meet starting Monday and take about 90 days to complete their tasks.

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