As I write this, I’m in the air at 31,000 feet, flying from Seattle to Dallas. And, I’m sad to tell you that I’m doing it with some relief that I’m on an Embraer jet rather than a Boeing.
I’m not alone. I heard seven people ask the flight attendant some version of “What kind of plane is this?”
Sunday’s reporting in the Seattle Times by Dominic Gates titled “Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing, FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system” is exactly the kind of piece that will make you start to ask questions like this.
It was a powerful piece of journalism, damning in the conclusions one might draw from it.
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At one point, Gates notes that he was reaching out to Boeing well before the second 737 MAX accident. Boeing communications folks were just too dang busy to answer a reporter’s questions.
Both Boeing and the FAA were informed of the specifics of this story and were asked for responses 11 days ago, before the second crash of a 737 MAX last Sunday.
Late Friday, the FAA said it followed its standard certification process on the MAX. Citing a busy week, a spokesman said the agency was “unable to delve into any detailed inquiries.”
It turns out, according to Gates’s reporting, that Boeing didn’t really want many questions asked about its new plane, the 737 MAX, when it rolled out to new customers.
“…training on moving from the old 737 NG model cockpit to the new 737 MAX consisted of little more than a one-hour session on an iPad, with no simulator training.
Minimizing MAX pilot transition training was an important cost saving for Boeing’s airline customers, a key selling point for the jet, which has racked up more than 5,000 orders.
The company’s website pitched the jet to airlines with a promise that “as you build your 737 MAX fleet, millions of dollars will be saved because of its commonality with the Next-Generation 737.”
It turns out the reporter wasn’t the only one Boeing was holding out on.
The apparently problematic software that has been at the center of the reporting on the crashes — known by the acronym MCAS — wasn’t even something Boeing told its customers about.
It was an entirely new software application, but not one that Boeing thought to tell its customers about before the crashes, apparently in order to save money on pilot training.
Since MCAS was supposed to activate only in extreme circumstances far outside the normal flight envelope, Boeing decided that 737 pilots needed no extra training on the system — and indeed that they didn’t even need to know about it. It was not mentioned in their flight manuals.
Sometimes, what people don’t know can hurt them.
Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the company will face an unprecedented subpoena from a newly empaneled grand jury pursuing a criminal investigation.
One can hope the company will make time to answer those questions, in spite of what will surely be a few busy weeks ahead.
In the U.S., it is highly unusual for federal prosecutors to investigate details of regulatory approval of commercial aircraft designs, or to use a criminal probe to delve into dealings between the FAA and the largest aircraft manufacturer the agency oversees. Probes of airliner programs or alleged lapses in federal safety oversight typically are handled as civil cases, often by the DOT inspector general.
So, now with Boeing facing a potential grand jury investigation, and a palpable nervousness in the air — literally among my fellow fliers and me — I sort of have to wonder about our relationship, Boeing.
Maybe this time, following the two 737 MAX crashes and some very strong reporting on the matter, maybe it’s time we faced reality.
Maybe it’s not us, Boeing. Maybe it’s you.
In 2001, when you left us to move to Chicago, you told us it was because we weren’t sophisticated or international enough for you. But, we still loved you. We’re provincial, right?
In 2003, when you needed $3.2 billion in tax breaks to think we were worth it, you said you’d (probably) stick around. But, we got it. It’s a global economy, right?
In 2005, when 60 Minutes covered “the biggest Pentagon scandal in 20 years,” the one where you bribed Dept. of Defense officials to earn $6 billion in excess contract payments, we looked the other way. CEO Gary Condit lost his job, after all, right?
In 2009, when you moved those Dreamliner jobs to South Carolina, you told us we were too hard to work with. But, we still took pride in the Boeing name. You’re one of the best community partners around, right?
In 2013, you threatened to quit us if you didn’t get the largest tax break to a private company in US history. But, we understood. That’s how the modern economy works, right?
But, now we’re in 2019.
And, based on the reporting of the Seattle Times, the Wall Street Journal and others, perhaps it’s time we come to terms with what you’re really trying to say to us — those of us in Seattle, but also those of us willing to fly your planes.
I hate to think this is true, Boeing, but maybe you’ve been over us a long, long time. Maybe we just haven’t gotten the message.
But, given the way things are starting to play out, maybe it’s time we should.