Credibility is a peculiar thing. It takes years, sometimes decades to build, and can best lost in an instant. The ongoing 737 MAX sage has already cost Boeing most of its credibility, but somehow Boeing found a way to dig its own grave even deeper…
The mess surrounding the 737 MAX is complex. Some try to pin the blame exclusively on Boeing. Others point to the inexperience of the pilots in Indonesia and Ethiopia as the proximate cause. Many blame regulators for failing to do their job and letting Boeing self-inspect and essentially certify its own new aircraft.
William Langewiesche’s behemoth price for the New York Times Magazine entitled, What really brought down the Boeing 737 Max? is a great read. It’s a long read, but helps to piece the broken pieces of the puzzles together in a fair and non-emotional way that vividly indicates there was more than enough fault to go around. Context is always important.
But graft, corruption, and a horrific safety record in Indonesia or poor training in Ethiopia simply does not excuse a design defect. It cannot. And Boeing has managed to find a way to further exacerbate an already-precarious situation.
The Text Messages
Let’s go back to November 6, 2016. It is four months before the FAA certified the 737 MAX. Rick Ludtke, a former Boeing engineer, is chatting with Mark Forkner, Boeing’s chief technical pilot for the 737 MAX. The following text messages were exchanged as part of a nine-minute conversation:
- “MCAS is now active down to M2. It’s running rampant in the sim on me, at least that’s what Vince thinks is happening.”
- “so I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)”
- “I’m levelling off at 4000ft, 230 knots and the plane is trimming itself like craxy, I’m like, WHAT?”
- “granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious”
- “they’re all so damn busy, and getting pressure from the program”
- “there are still some real fundamental issues that they claim they’re aware of”
For a background on MCAS, read this.
As if that was not enough, there is more fodder between the two:
- “nah, I’m locked in my hotel room with an ice cold grey goose, I’ll probably fire off a few dozen inappropriate emails before I call it a night”
- “I’d ask for a job in sales where I can just get paid to drink with customers and lie about how awesome our airplanes are”
Boeing released a statement yesterday about the text messages, seemingly expressing more annoyance than contrition:
It is unfortunate that this document, which was provided early this year to government investigators, couldn’t be released in a manner that would have allowed for meaningful explanation.
You can read the full statement here, which is quite long and tries to defend Boeing’s flight testing protocols while concluding with an apology:
We are deeply saddened and have been humbled by these accidents, and are fully committed to learning from them.
The only thing, it seems to me, that is saving Boeing is the lack of competition. Airbus simply cannot meet worldwide demand on its own. Aspiring Russian and Chinese competitors are simply not politically feasible outside their immediate spheres of influence.
To be clear, I don’t think this issue should sink Boeing. Frankly, I’d still step on a 737MAX today with my wife and son in tow without (much) hesitation. But these text messages are absolutely damning to Boeing..there is no better word to describe it.
And as Boeing suddenly faces even more scrutiny in every direction, it has only itself to blame.