Boeing’s Safety Commitment Under Scrutiny

These were the words of Boeing’s Chief Executive, David Calhoun, on his inaugural day in January 2020, appointed in the aftermath of two catastrophic crashes involving Boeing’s flagship 737 Max that claimed the lives of 346 individuals.

“I see greatness in this company, but I also see opportunities to do better. Much better.”

Fast forward four years, and Boeing now finds itself under the investigative lens of the United States regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), accused of potentially neglecting to ensure its aircraft were “in a condition for safe operation.” The company is set to face heightened oversight and fresh safety assessments following stringent measures announced by the FAA’s new head, Mike Whitaker.

The recent incident involving an Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9, where an unused door blew off shortly after takeoff, has cast a harsh spotlight on Boeing’s commitment to safety. While no serious injuries occurred, subsequent inspections have uncovered loose bolts and fixings on other planes of the same model, raising concerns about the manufacturing process.

Addressing Boeing staff this week, Calhoun pledged that the company would acknowledge its “mistake” and approach the investigation with “100% and complete transparency.” This acknowledgment has intensified scrutiny on Boeing’s safety commitment and the overall performance of the 737 Max.

Despite being a commercial success, with 1,370 units delivered and another 4,300 on order, the aircraft has faced significant challenges behind the scenes. Manufacturing defects affecting crucial components such as the fuselage, tail, and rudder assembly, as well as issues with sealants designed to protect against lightning strikes in the central fuel tank, have marred its reputation.

Blame has been placed on Boeing’s supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, a Kansas-based company responsible for building major parts of the 737 MaXXXXXX, including fuselages. Spirit also produced the door that detached in the recent Alaska Airlines incident. A shareholder lawsuit filed last year accused Boeing of deliberately concealing serious defects, a claim vehemently denied by Spirit.

Analysts emphasize that ultimate responsibility lies with Boeing. “When they build the fuselage and assemble the interior, insulation, walls, and so on, they are obliged to check that the supply from Spirit is correct. The quality assurance has to be made by Boeing,” says aeronautical analyst Bjorn Fehrm.

Concerns extend beyond manufacturing defects, with reports indicating over 1,300 faults on 737 Max planes reported by US carriers alone by September of the previous year. While some were minor, others pointed to potentially serious problems with flight management computers, autopilots, engines, and other critical systems.

The Foundation for Aviation Safety, led by former Boeing manager and whistleblower Ed Pierson, has analyzed this data, deeming the reports “troubling” and expressing concern about the industry’s complacency towards them.

Critics argue that a fundamental cultural problem exists at Boeing. Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the US Department of Transportation, suggests that the company fails to realize its vulnerability to quality control problems, jeopardizing safety globally where these planes operate.

Boeing, over the past five years, has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to prioritizing safety in its operations. When questioned about quality control issues and its safety culture, a company spokesperson referred to Calhoun’s recent comments, wherein he pledged full cooperation with investigators and regulators to ensure every future airplane is safe.

Boeing’s troubled history includes admitting misleading regulators and concealing safety information after the two previous crashes involving the 737 Max. The company avoided prosecution by agreeing to pay fines and compensation totaling $2.5 billion.

Relatives of those who perished in the Ethiopian plane crash assert that the latest incident indicates little has changed within the company over the past five years. Nadege Dubois-Seex, who lost her husband Jonathan, claims, “They absolutely haven’t learned anything. Nothing has been done. We’re still in the corporate culture that’s putting defective products out there.”

Zipporah Kuria, whose father Joseph Waithaka died in the same accident, shares the sentiment, stating, “I don’t think Boeing has changed. I think this incident is a marker and an indicator of a lack of change. They say history repeats itself when we fail to learn from it—and here we are yet again.”

In the backdrop of these concerns, Boeing is actively working to launch two new versions of the 737 Max—the relatively small Max 7 and the much larger Max 10. To achieve this, the company has sought a temporary exemption from recently introduced safety rules designed to prevent anti-icing systems from causing potential damage to engine inlets.

However, the recent Alaska Airlines incident may complicate Boeing’s efforts to secure the exemption, potentially delaying the introduction of these new models. As CEO Calhoun navigates the aftermath of this incident, questions linger about whether he has lived up to his promises to make Boeing “better.”

“I think he’s tried,” says analyst Bjorn Fehrm. “There is change at Boeing. But over the past five years, we are only seeing the result of two and a half decades of mismanagement. To come back and rebuild a culture… is a long process.”