Have We Reached Min MAX? Or Is It Max MAX?

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The other week, my colleague, the stalwart Kate O’Connor, sent along a wry email: “I’m going to be writing about this for the rest of my life, aren’t I?” It was in reference to yet another development in the Boeing MAX story. You can hardly open a web browser without seeing another story unfavorable to Boeing. But even without looking at the actuarial tables, I’m at more risk for reaching my sell-by date with just one more MAX story yet unwritten. I’m gonna guess this whole thing will blow over by 2030.

There has been so much coverage on every detail of the MAX fiasco that it’s hard to know if Boeing has hit bottom yet. A certain numbness sets in after awhile and the sharp edge of news judgment on what to cover and what not becomes more difficult. We cover the story via aggregation, which means we distill other news stories and add it to our three-times weekly bulletins. Although our focus is general aviation, the MAX story is just inside our guard rails and its effects have spilled into every aspect of GA that has to do with certification. As I’ve noted, nearly everyone I talk to reports delays on cert projects as FAA apparatchiks hold things up for just one more look in search of the next MCAS.

This week the story got even weirder with the release of a tranche of Boeing insider e-mail that featured such PR-burnishing observations as describing FAA officials attending briefings on the MAX as dogs watching TV and that the entire project was “designed by clowns and supervised by monkeys.” Delightful.

If this were a reality show—The Real MAXes of Seattle—the script is writing itself. But one of those emails has got me thinking that however bad things are inside Boeing, some of this stuff seems cherry picked or taken out of context. One in particular was reported by NPR who said a test pilot crashed the MAX simulator the first few times he tried flying it, but that you get decent at it after three or four tries.

This makes no sense. The MAX is little different than a garden-variety 737-800 and only exhibited control feel issues in a narrow corner of the envelope most pilots would never fly in. Was the test pilot doing that or something else abnormal in the course of routine certification work? Or was he just being a wise ass? I’d want to know more before making a judgment on it. And how widespread were the other comments related to the MAX’s flaws? People working for companies of all sizes do this sort of carping routinely.

In my view, these revelations don’t add much to what we already know, which is disastrous for Boeing. It made engineering choices and changes that it hid from the FAA and its customers and browbeat airlines into accepting the new airplane without requiring or recommending simulator training. It failed to document the flawed MCAS trim sub-routine and misled at least one airline about including angle-of-attack failure annunciation on the cockpit displays. By far, the worst aspect of this is that the FAA has fined Boeing for what it says was knowingly using faulty slat tracks on 737s and addended to this week’s unseemly email story as barely a single sentence was something less sexy: It wants to fine Boeing another $5.4 million for installing the same unapproved tracks on the MAX aircraft. 

The hits just keep coming. And Monday is Dave Calhoun’s first day as Boeing’s new CEO. Famed admiral William Halsey once said there are no great men, just great challenges which ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet. He was thinking of World War II which, at least, mercifully ended after seven years.

Over to you, Kate.

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36 COMMENTS

  1. Another noteworthy PB-gram on football Sunday. Wow !

    “apparatchiks” … where the heck do you come up with such words? I’m impressed. Another entry goes into my “I’ve never heard of that word” book for future use …

    “Designed by clowns, supervised by monkeys,” and “overseen by dogs watching TV.” It doesn’t get any worse than that. Meanwhile … in Mobile, AL, Airbus is ramping up several production lines while MCAS equipped B737”s are deteriorating … who knows where? We be in deep doo-doo, folks.

    I’m here to tell you that test pilots never get a chance to do anything ‘off script’ from their pre-approved test cards unless something very bad happens … in which case the tenets of CFR 91.3 hold true … like the first flight of the YF-16 on 20 Jan 1974. That’s why there are SO few crashes of new designs since the 40’s. So if you plop one of ’em into a sim … they’re gonna have fun. Test pilots don’t get paid to fly straight and level on autopilot … they get paid to find faults in new designs. Sounds like this one did? And IF that’s true … what followed IS criminal. R&R of the CEO ain’t enough.

  2. The doggie TV meme says it all. Speaking of the new G something targeting the owner flown market, one can’t help but think back to what an earlier generation V-tail was famous for. Wonder when Savannah’s legal department will start taking an interest in this new G series.

  3. Paul:

    Help is on the way. Spirit just announced 2800 layoffs, and Boeing will have more. The lawmakers and administration will get some pressure on putting these folks back to work.

    Boeing made some mistakes–bad ones. But life moves one, and this needs to move on also.

    Best

    Vince

  4. 40-odd years from now, whilst I rest quietly in a nursing home (preferably under the flight path of some mid-sized airport not yet closed by noise complaints), my final get-rich-quick scheme will be the release of a 48-volume, leather-bound, encyclopedia-style collection of AVweb’s MAX coverage…

  5. I would love to see the conversation move slightly away from the MAX and more on the boardmembers, who they are, which decisions were OKed, the culture at Boeing, hear more from engineers, hear how managers feel now after the fact. I would also love to hear more about Airbus and how and if it is different, boardmembers, organizational structure, etc. The problem isn’t technology. It’s having non-aviation financial folks making decisions at the helm, which last I checked is rampant in almost all high-level industries.

    I travel to China often and have this weird fascination and horror-spellbound vision of how they’re pulling ahead while we waddle in this profit-making over engineering-sense scenario. Let’s focus on how non-technical people end up waging our lives over profits. Let’s talk about the vast majority of our GDP are small to mid-size companies, not the big ones and how these big company leverage too much pressure on smaller companies making the economy go round. That angle is far more attracting to me. Perhaps, it might even push the industry and, hopefully, investors to demand knowledgeable people are at the helm again. Just a thought.

    • To institutional investors, Boeing does not exist to make airplanes; Boeing exists to make profits.

      No surprise, and no harm – unless that viewpoint reaches the shop floor (slat tracks) or the design group (MCAS). Apparently, that already has happened.

      Replacing the entire board of directors won’t be enough to move THAT deadly needle. Heads are going to have to roll, both in engineering and in manufacturing. Probably LOTS of heads.

      Regardless of where your cancer started, you have to remove ALL of it, if you intend to survive. Stage 3, Will Robinson.

      • That’s not surprising, about profit that is: Journalism 101 is that a newspaper existed [when they did exist] to make a profit. Nothing wrong with that.
        One thing that I’ve found is that it takes a surprisingly few corrupt individuals to weaken an organization; sometimes only one. But everyone else goes along with the tide, to keep their jobs.

  6. As a non-engineer, but someone knowledgeable on aircraft in general, we can see the Max disaster from a micro view and a macro view. In the micro, the sloppy and dangerous fixes for the Max stability issues are inexcusable. From a macro view, we see how some publicly traded organizations like Boeing DO NOT necessarily have the end user of their products’ interests at the forefront.

  7. You have to face it, Boeing might not exist by 2030. Companies come and go, especially when they make spectacular mistakes.
    Alstom springs to mind. Used to make steam trains and power stations — then world’s fastest trains and turbines so big they could turn electricity generators to power countries. Made a wrong turning on the turbines and that whole business is gone. Train business limping too.
    It is not original but I will say it anyway — with the Max, Boeing seems to have left the designing to consultants, the manufacture to workers not much over the minimum wage and the management to business school graduates.
    And as the slat track problem shows, it is not just on big things that it happens. Workers say “we have dangerous parts coming through.” Management does nothing because it will upset the numbers if they do something…
    If your pension scheme has Boeing in it, and many if not most do, maybe a good time to urge a rethink.

  8. Boeing will survive simply because they are literally too big to fail. Way too many business units and subcontractors scattered around the country in lots of Congressional districts. What will be interesting is to see if they will learn from this mess and restructure to regain their former engineering centered philosophy, or stagger along as a mediocre company like GE or Alstom who left bean counters in control. The incoming CEO has an opportunity to change the direction, but this will take a concerted effort for him and his successor to make the change. Deep-seated problems don’t disappear overnight.

  9. Apparatchik…. ‘In current use, however, a person doesn’t have to be a member of the Communist Party to be called an “apparatchik”; he or she just has to be someone who mindlessly follows orders in an organization or bureaucracy… Merriam-Webster.’

    I never heard the word before. Sort of like the word gravitas. I never heard that word before either. And then once used by some unknown speechwriter, it was the word of the day, getting more and more airtime. Prediction: Paul B will be launched into international aviation press stardom by his introduction and use of “apparatchik”. Very cool. Easier to spell than Bureaucracy or Bureaucrat, too. I can hardly wait to see how long it takes to make this word mainstream. It’s off to great start. And to think it has been around since 1941.

  10. “Apparatchik,” really? Where I live an entire language has been created around one word that is only four letters and begins with “f.” Inflection is what determines meaning. It’s amazing to listen to in conversation. Public education at its best.

  11. Yes, kudos to you Paul for interjecting “apparatchik” into the aviation lexicon, long overdue in the context in which you used it. But, with all due respect, anyone old enough to remember “iron curtain” or “Berlin Wall” is very familiar with both “apparachik” and “gravitas”.

  12. Apparatchik. Must be a generational thing. I came of age before the demise of the Soviet Union, and the word was in common usage among the moderately well-read. If you read Tom Clancy you knew what an apparatchik was. Perhaps the younger among us haven’t encountered it. If so that’s progress.

    • Sheesh. I have bad news for those surprised by apparatchik. I ran this text through several readability indices and here are the results.

      Flesch-Kincaid
      Grade Level: 8.7
      Grade level: Ninth Grade.

      The Coleman-Liau Index: 8
      Grade level: Eighth grade

      The SMOG Index: 7.8
      Grade level: Eighth grade

      Automated Readability Index: 8.5
      Grade level: 13-15 yrs. old (Eighth and Ninth graders)

      Linsear Write Formula : 10.6
      Grade level: Eleventh Grade.

      I’m enrolling in night school. Clearly I have to up my game here. I’m looking for a context to use milieu.

    • And by the way, I remember clearly when I first encountered it. University of Maryland 1973. Chinese history course taught by Earl Folsom. As a result of that, I can also still pronounce Kuomintang correctly and I know what it is.

      Other than than that, college was a blur.

  13. We are long past the point where it’s better to just let it die. Re-branding won’t work. Fixing everything won’t work. Selling it as ready to go to the public won’t work. The only true thing that will work is Boeing committing to chalk it up as over.

    • The MAX isn’t dead. Maybe it won’t have the same enthusiasm as before, but considering the 787 flew again after the battery issue, and the DC-10 flew again after the cargo door issue, and even the Comet flew again after the explosive decompression issue, the MAX will fly again.

  14. One thing I’ve read in a couple of places is that over the last few years Boeing started replacing engineering managers with business oriented managers with less technical qualifications.

    I wonder is this is true.

    I don’t see that Boeing did anything wrong in the design of the 737 slat tracks. A supplier to Spirit used substandard material that wear out prematurely, there was nothing wrong with the design and no slat track has ever failed.

    Boeing and the FAA did issue a urgent AD when the problem surfaced. I would need to see real evidence about what ‘what did they know and when did they know it’ before I urge the mob to ‘git a rope’.