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A Boeing 737 MAX 9 blew an escape hatch on Friday. Here’s how a once-great engineering company created deadly planes.

 

Boeing no longer makes “amazing flying machines.”

Typing that sentence brings a lump to my throat. My brain sees the “Red Barn,” part of the Museum of Flight adjacent to Boeing Field that pays homage to early Boeing innovation. Friends (geeky ones) held their wedding reception at the museum. I may have Georgia red clay roots, but 30+ years here has linked my sense of self to the spirit of the Northwest, which includes Boeing, founded in 1916.

When I went to work at Boeing in 1996, I was surprised to be working inside geek culture. Granted, I was part of an IT team, but I found that the entire company seemed populated by engineers.

Boeing was “an engineers’ company [that] made planes to make its engineers proud, whatever the cost,” as Natasha Frost wrote in QZ four years ago.

The late 20th century ushered in changes in Washington, D.C. (deregulation) and Europe (Airbus). U.S. decision makers thought that an industry with an extremely punitive cost of entry should somehow be “competitive.” (Magical thinking, as is far too much of U.S. economic policy.)

In 1997 regulators on both sides of the Atlantic gave the green light for Boeing and McDonnell Douglas (MD) to “merge.” Boeing bought MD for $14 billion. In retrospect, the consensus is that Harry Stonecipher, then MD CEO “bought Boeing with Boeing’s money.”

“When people say I changed the culture of Boeing, that was the intent, so that it’s run like a business rather than a great engineering firm,” Stonecipher told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “People invest in a company because they want to make money.”

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I will never forget the all-hands meeting after the merger.

“Boeing exists to increase shareholder value,” the C-Suite representative told our Renton audience.

I turned to my co-worker with the 1998 equivalent of WTF.

“That’s bullshit.”

I jumped on my soapbox and ranted: “Companies exist to solve problems by creating products and services. Do it well, and they’ll make money. But they also have responsibilities to their employees, their vendors, their communities. Not just stockholders.”

I didn’t yet realize that the “merger” with McDonnell Douglas would make finance the only measurement that counted. MD management, void of engineers, fully embraced “shareholder primacy,” a then newly fashionable business theory that American corporations still embrace, long after its pull date.

In 2000, I left Boeing for AT&T Wireless.

In 2001, Boeing left Seattle for Chicago.

~~~

I pivoted from industry to higher education after leaving Boeing. Two years ago, I started teaching a technical communications class for undergraduate engineering students at the University of Washington. For 10 weeks, we explore engineering ethics. I learned that engineers have an ethical code more encompassing than medical doctors, who are to “do no harm” to an individual.

Engineers have a cardinal ethical charge to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

In exploring examples of engineering ethical failures, many students look to Boeing. They look to Boeing for failures, not successes.

Those failures have multiplied since Boeing introduced the 737 MAX 8. Chasing stock prices and Airbus, senior managers (McDonnell Douglas alums) ignored warnings about instability and jerry-rigged a hardware-software “solution” to resolve an engineering design flaw.

And so on 29 October 2018Lion Air flight JT 610 left Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport at 06:20. The Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashed into the ocean less than 13 minutes later, killing 189 passengers and Lion employees.

Then on 10 March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 left the Addis Ababa-Bole Airport at 08:38. It, too, was a Boeing 737 MAX 8 and crashed shortly after take-off. All passengers and employees, 157, died here, too.

Boeing management prioritized cost cutting over safety, and 346 people died. 

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger criticized Boeing in a New York Times magazine letter-to-the-editor, calling the hardware-software kludge “a death trap.”

The software/hardware system “that caused both crashes was declared to be potentially ‘catastrophic’ in early flight simulations and yet was hidden from the view of both Boeing’s own head of safety and regulators at the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA).”

Read. That. Again.

“… hidden from the view of both Boeing’s own head of safety and regulators at the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA).”

Yet no one went to jail.

Sullenberger criticized the FAA as well: “Where Boeing failed, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should have stepped in to regulate but it failed to do so.”

According to two professors of ethics at Seattle University, the FAA long ago shifted “significant delegation of regulatory authority to Boeing itself.” Boeing also got to pick what certification tasks it should perform independent of the FAA.

In January 2019, Boeing announced that it would replace almost 1,000 quality inspectors with “smart tools” by the end of 2020. That’s a third of the “second set of eyes” who double check safety.

~~~

Now we come to the present.

Early Friday morning, 05 January 2024, the Seattle Times told its readers that Boeing had asked the FAA “for an exemption from key safety standards on the 737 MAX 7.”

For Boeing, the timing could hardly have been worse.

That afternoon, Alaska Airlines AS1282 took off from Portland, Oregon at 5.07 pm. The 10-week old Boeing MAX 9 made an emergency landing less than a half hour later.

A “deactivated mid-aft door” (door plug) failed to hold at 16,000 feet. When it blew, it left a giant hole on the left side of the plane. Oxygen masks dropped, as they are supposed to when the cabin experiences a loss in pressure.

Interior and exterior view of Boeing 737 MAX 9
Interior and exterior images of the Boeing 737 MAX 9 that blew out a portion of its fuselage on Friday.

I cannot remember the last time that I flew with unoccupied seats. But fortunately for Boeing, no one was seated next to that section of fuselage.

Violent depressurization sucked the shirt off a 12 year old boy seated in the row behind the hole. Depressurization also sucked people’s phones out the hole as well as a stuffed toy given to the boy by his grandmother. It wrenched opened the anti-hijacker door to the cockpit.

Monday, United Airlines found loose bolts associated with the door plug. Spirit AeroSystems of Wichita, Kansas, whose CEO is a former Boeing executive, manufactures the door plug. It installed the door plug on Alaska Airlines AS1282.

The Alaska Boeing 737 MAX 9 door bolts remain missing.

Who inspected the work?

Boeing inspectors? Spirit AeroSystems staff? “Smart tools”?

~~~

The Boeing board should have fired ALL C-suite executives by the end of 2020. Instead, the Board made The Blackstone Group/Nielsen Holdings/General Electric alum David L. Calhoun the CEO. (Not an engineer: all finance, all the time.) Calhoun had sat on the board while McDonnell Douglas alumni, financiers not engineers, made decisions that led directly to those 346 deaths.

TOO LITTLE “has been written on the ethical significance of the accidents,” according to engineering professors Joseph Herkert, Jason Borenstein and Keith Miller. They conclude:

Safety is not cheap, but careless engineering design in the name of minimizing costs and adhering to a delivery schedule is a symptom of ethical blight.

Ethical blight lives at the heart of “shareholder primacy.”

Ethical blight lives at the heart of American capitalism.

Ethical blight lives at the heart of a once pioneering engineering company.

I did not realize the hold that Boeing has on my heart, on my pride as a Washingtonian. To see such engineering excellence succumb to avarice not only breaks my heart, it exposes the rot at the center of American “capitalism.” This decay can only be remedied by firm resolve: rein in monopolistic forces, empower labor, hold corporations accountable for safety violations, and create a tax structure that penalizes shareholder primacy.

~~~

With thanks to Izzy, Lara and Shasta.

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