After Midair Failure, Critics Ask: Did Boeing Learn from Max Crashes?

NTSB/Handout via REUTERS
The fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Boeing 737-9 MAX, which was forced to make an emergency landing with a gap in the fuselage, is seen during its investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Portland, Oregon, U.S. January 7, 2024.

Last week’s dramatic midflight blowout of a portion of a Boeing 737 Max jet over Portland, Ore., is deepening concerns throughout the aviation industry that Boeing failed to prioritize safety after two catastrophic plane crashes that killed 346 people five years ago.

Even before the blowout – which on Thursday became the subject of an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration – the country’s leading aerospace manufacturer had admitted in recent months to loose bolts in the rudder-control system of 737 Max planes, holes being drilled in the wrong places by a supplier, and a defect in the anti-icing system that could cause severe structural damage if pilots failed to manually switch it off.

When problems keep coming up with Max planes, “people start to have questions about whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the culture or process within the company,” said Nick Cunningham, an aerospace and defense analyst at the London-based Agency Partners.

FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker said in an interview that the goal of the investigation and audit of Boeing’s manufacturing, in addition to finding out what happened to the jet, is “to really understand how after several years of production problems that this issue has not been rectified.”

Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the door plug on an Alaska Airlines flight to fail, leaving a gaping hole in the fuselage that terrified passengers at 16,000 feet. But they are examining whether bolts were properly installed on the hardware that holds the panel to the plane.

Boeing chief executive David L. Calhoun told employees Tuesday that the company will own up to any mistakes it made and cooperate with regulators and airline customers throughout the investigation. That promise is the latest in a series of pledges Boeing has made over the years to revamp its organization’s culture in a bid to restore trust with regulators, airlines, pilots and the flying public after its role in the crashes – revealed through congressional hearings, document leaks and federal probes – tarnished its image as a trusted American icon.

Federal investigators found Boeing made a series of flawed assumptions in designing a flight-control software system for the 737 Max and concealed key details about the system to regulators, contributing to the two crashes in 2018 and 2019. Hundreds of the jets were grounded for nearly two years, hurting the company’s finances.

Boeing fixed the flawed 737 Max components and said it would create a new product safety organization within the company, expand an anonymous safety reporting system, and clean up a company culture in which Calhoun acknowledged people were “having a hard time being honest with one another.”

The company has said it has done all three. However, critics see Boeing’s recent production errors as evidence the company hasn’t improved in the most important measure: making planes safer. Aviation industry experts say doubts about safety threaten to derail Boeing’s efforts to mend relations with regulators in Washington and rebuild trust with customers in key markets such as China – as well as airline passengers.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Ed Pierson, a former senior manager at Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton, Wash., who left in 2018 after warning that poor factory conditions posed threats to production quality. “You’re still building unsafe airplanes.”

Boeing spokeswoman Jessica Kowal declined to publicly comment on the company’s culture or safety measures.

Calhoun, a former GE executive who has served on Boeing’s board since 2009, took over the top job at Boeing in 2020, after he and fellow directors pushed out the previous CEO over his handling of the Max crisis. Calhoun inherited a business that was losing money and taking on debt.

While Boeing’s production of the 737 Max has roared back in recent years, the company has faced setbacks across its business lines, including delays caused by 737 Max production issues, a tanker project that has cost Boeing $7 billion more than the government will pay, and cost overruns on its development of new Air Force One jets, on which Boeing now stands to lose $2.4 billion, according to Cunningham. The company has not turned a profit since 2018.

Analysts say the one bright spot in Boeing’s business – growing orders for its commercial jetliners – is now threatened by renewed doubts about the 737 Max’s safety and reliability. The jets accounted for about two-thirds of the company’s commercial plane orders last year.

In addition to opening a new probe into the door-plug incident, the FAA said it will take steps to increase oversight of Boeing, including an audit of the 737 Max 9 production line, monitoring of any incidents with the plane and an assessment of whether independent checks on manufacturing quality are needed.

Recent events also could jeopardize Boeing’s 2021 agreement with the Justice Department, which deferred criminal prosecution if Boeing created new policies to comply with U.S. fraud laws. If a federal judge determines Boeing has not met the terms of the deal, the judge could extend the agreement or even rule that the agreement was violated, said John C. Coffee, a Columbia Law School professor who has studied the deal.

How and whether Boeing complied with the agreement remains out of public view. A Justice Department spokesman declined to say whether the agreement remains in effect.

Some of Boeing’s production problems trace to Spirit AeroSystems, a Wichita-based supplier that builds huge portions of 737 Max jets before shipping them to Boeing for final assembly. Spirit initially installed the plug that blew off the Alaska Airlines flight, the supplier said.

In April, Spirit said it discovered problems with fittings on the vertical fins of 737 planes, and in August, Boeing and Spirit found improperly drilled holes on a key component called the rear bulkhead, according to statements by Spirit. Both problems were uncovered before the planes carried passengers but delayed plane deliveries, according to investor filings.

After the incidents, Spirit said that the issues posed no immediate safety concerns and that the company will work to repair the problems on affected planes. Spirit spokesman Joe Buccino declined to provide further comment for this story.

Boeing says it is responsible for ensuring its planes are safe before putting them into service.

In August, the FAA warned of a newly discovered defect with the anti-icing system on all 737 Max jets. After a pilot engages this system to protect the engines from icy clouds, they must turn it back off within five minutes or risk deterioration to the plane that could be hazardous to passengers or force an emergency landing, the FAA said in a written notice. The system is built by a different supplier.

The hazard exists for all models of the 737 Max. It was discovered during Boeing’s testing of the 737 Max 7, a smaller-body jet the company is hoping the FAA will soon certify for commercial use. Last month, Boeing asked the agency for an exemption that would give the company more than two years to come up with a fix for the anti-icing issue across all lines of the 737 Max, including ones currently in use.

In some ways, aviation experts see this design flaw as reminiscent of the problems that led to the 2018 and 2019 crashes. A new Max operated by Lion Air crashed in Indonesia in October 2018; a second new jet, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, crashed in Ethiopia less than five months later. In both disasters, a flawed software system was triggered by a single malfunctioning sensor – a design problem known as a “single point of failure.” Engineers prefer to design multiple, redundant safety components that can override one malfunction.

A former senior FAA official said the anti-icing issue also echoes a Boeing decision that contributed to the Max crashes: relying on pilots to make up for important design problems in its Max planes.

Boeing “basically assumes that pilots are going to remember, on every flight, that they need to turn off anti-ice,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the company. “Is that something you really want to rely on to keep the airplane from catastrophic failure?”

Since the FAA warned pilots of the problem last summer, Dennis Tajer, a pilot for American Airlines and spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, has been setting a stopwatch and putting a yellow sticky note on the dashboard every time he engages the anti-icing system, as reminders to shut it off quickly.

“It’s a single point of failure,” Tajer said. “I don’t know what their solution will be in two years, but whatever it is, make it in two days, please.”

Last May, the company held a media event at its Arlington, Va., headquarters to outline safety reforms since the twin fatal disasters. During the event, Michael Delaney, a longtime Boeing engineering executive who was named the company’s first chief aerospace safety officer in 2021, said the company is committed to learning from its past.

“When I talk to people about the 737 Max, I’m not interested in atonement. I’m not interested in retribution,” Delaney said at the time. “I’m interested in making sure that the Boeing Company, when it designs its next airplane, does not make a fundamental engineering mistake or program management mistake that was contributory to having an unsafe condition on an airplane that led to an accident.”

Boeing declined to make Delaney available for an interview after the Alaska Airlines incident.

Within the company, Delaney said in May, there is still no uniform view about the problems that occurred in the development of the 737 Max because everyone wasn’t in every meeting and had different roles. He said it will take time to reconcile those perspectives as Boeing continues to share the investigative findings and the factual record across the company.