Saturday, January 08, 2022

Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing

Flying Blind is a hatchet job on the modern Boeing. The bean counters took over. The beginning of the end was the late 90s acquisition of McDonnell Douglas. The later had a much more competitive, hostile culture. The joke was that MCD bought Boeing with Boeing's money. The culture soon permeated the company. Things got worse as the company sought out a Jack Welch proteges for CEO. The financial manipulation continued in full force. GE management concepts such as stack ranking were introduced. There was an emphasis on managing for financial results. Stock buybacks were preferred over research and development. The headquarters was moved to Chicago, away from the engineering center. Many functions were divested and contracted out. Operations were moved to non-union locations. At the same time, government oversight had been reduced, with airlines doing the bulk of the certification effort.

This was the situation under which the 737max was developed. Boeing needed a refresh to compete with Airbus and the increased inroads of regional jet manufacturers. By calling it an update of the 737, Boeing could save on a lot of the expenses. Certification would be straightforward and pilot training would be minimized. The plane was different from other 737s. To compensate for some of the changes, software fixes were implemented. The MCAS system would rely on sensor data to correct flight patterns to prevent stalls. It seemed like a good idea. However, later changes were made to account for another possible situation by relying on only a single sensor. To make matters worse, it was an extra charge to be able to see details on the status of this sensor. There were also no details as to what MCAS would do and how to avoid it. 

Sure enough a plane crashed due to the system activating on take off due to faulty sensor data. This was on a third world airline with a questionable record. It was easy to chalk it up to poor maintenance or pilot error. Boeing tried to brush it away and pay off the victims. Then a similar thing happened to Ethiopian airlines. This was also on the "other side of the globe". However, this was a well run airline and pilots had seemed to do everything they should. With multiple planes falling out of the sky, governments soon moved to ground the 737max. It would take over a year before it was back up. The government now had a much stronger interest in regulation. This was a sad case of a software bug killing people due to a lack of testing of edge cases and human reaction. Some people did voice concerns, but they were hushed. Boeing didn't want the small additional cost of more simulator training.  (According to sources, Southwest had copy and pasted language for a $1 million penalty per plane if simulator training were required. Boing has paid over a $1 billion in compensation alone for the MAX incident - and Southwest is training pilots with simulators.)

There are a lot of angles to view the source of the MAX tragedy. This book zeroes in on corporate culture.

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