What Boeing hoped would be an isolated problem has turned into a widespread issue and another safety and credibility concern.
Last week, I reported that Boeing discovered fuel debris during spot inspections of undelivered 737 MAXs. Even though the MAXs have sat idle since last spring, they still require routine maintenance to remain airworthy.
Boeing responded to this unanticipated discovery by embarking upon a thorough examination of all of its undelivered 737 MAX aircraft for fuel debris. Hoping it would not find widespread debris, the opposite has occurred. Already, Boeing found debris in 35 aircraft, 70% of the 50 jets that have been inspected so far.
Boeing has about 400 MAX aircraft waiting to be delivered.
A Boeing spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal, “Boeing is taking it very, very seriously.” Boeing has expanded its debris inspection beyond the fuel tanks to other parts of the airplane.
It also issued a strongly-worded statement seeking to ensure customers the problem would be swiftly dealt with:
“This is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated on any Boeing aircraft when it’s delivered to the customer.”
Boeing stresses the inspections are voluntary and the issue was disclosed voluntarily. While both points are true, Boeing misses the point.
Boeing supposedly had advanced software, including logging each tool in and out, precisely to prevent against debris. It has stringent guidelines and checklists intended to eliminate any such debris. The widespread debris makes it reasonable to wonder what other lapses may have occurred in safety and quality control checks.
Fuel debris can include metal shavings, tools, and other objects left behind during assembly. While there is likely no link between the fuel tank debris and the two 737 MAX crashes, the news once again demonstrates that Boeing has seemingly cut many corners. Plus, this debris may increase the risk of electrical short-circuiting and fires.
The 737 MAX has remained grounded for nearly a year, after a pair of crashes killed 346 people. As Boeing continues to promise a “software fix” is just around the corner, it must grapple with a more sinister reality: it has forfeited much of its trust that a software update will not overcome.
It could be that the 70% ratio does not continue for the remaining 350 MAXs that will soon be inspected. But isn’t 35 aircraft with debris 35 aircraft too many?