Two crashes of Boeing 737 Max airliners within five months claimed 346 lives, people who were unlucky enough to fly in jets cursed with a combination of faulty sensors, flawed automatic anti-stall software, and dysfunctional warning systems.
The unsafe aircraft dealt a devastating blow to the reputation of Boeing, revealing the once-iconic American corporation as callous, careless, secretive, ill-governed, arrogant, and averse to accountability. And it shook public confidence in the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that’s supposed to watchdog air travel but allowed the 737 Max into the skies and then was slow to ground them after the crashes.
Boeing’s lapses leading up to crashes may result in criminal charges — the Justice Department is investigating. But even if the company escapes punishment, Boeing and its regulator need to recognize that rebuilding public confidence will take decisive action.
For starters, the bungles leading up to the two crashes should cost Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s all-too-powerful president, CEO, and board chairman, his job. Boeing is no ordinary private company; it has a responsibility to ensure the safety of the flying public. But asked recently if he had considered resigning over the company’s missteps, Muilenberg dodged the question with this comment: “I am very focused on safety going forward. It is important that as a company we have those clear priorities, that we are taking the right actions, that we have the right culture.”
Even though the planes’ anti-stall systems apparently caused the fatal dives, Muilenburg has tried to deflect blame, saying that safety “procedures were not completely followed” and problems with that system were part of a larger “chain of events.” There, he again seemed to be suggesting that the pilots were at least partially at fault. Speaking about the software fix Boeing is preparing, Muilenburg added: “This will make the airplane even safer.” Even safer? That will surely come as great comfort to families who lost loved ones in these two crashes.
Despite Muilenburg’s spin, the list of Boeing’s malfeasance, miscues, and mistakes is long, and they occurred on his watch. The company knew back in 2017 that an alert to warn pilots that the plane’s angle-of-attack sensors were transmitting conflicting information — the situation that apparently prompted the anti-stall system to push the airliners’ noses down — did not work without an optional indicator, which many customers hadn’t purchased. Without that warning, pilots wouldn’t quickly be alerted to the likely cause of the dive. Still, Boeing didn’t tell its customers in a timely way of that problem, nor was there a sense of urgency it needed to be fixed.
Only after the October 2018 Lion Air crash, which cost 189 lives, did Boeing inform its customers of that glitch. Yet even after that first crash, Boeing insisted an inoperative warning system wasn’t a safety problem. No one on the company’s board of directors raised concerns, according to the Washington Post. Indeed, Boeing doesn’t count any safety experts among its members.
After that initial crash, Boeing could have saved lives if it had voluntarily grounded the 737 Max. It didn’t. Amazingly, Boeing was reportedly reluctant to accede to grounding the plane even after the second crash, this one of an Ethiopian Airlines jet in March, which cost 157 lives. Only after a Canadian source revealed that anti-stall system had been activated before that crash as well, did Boeing call the White House to recommend that the plane be grounded. Shortly thereafter, President Trump announced that he was ordering the airplane grounded.
It’s also disturbing that the administration and the FAA only came to that decision after Boeing’s call. That suggests the regulatory agency, which has been inadequately funded over time, and has had an acting administrator for 16 months under Trump, is subservient to the corporate behemoth. Congress should better fund the FAA and put a premium on strengthening the agency’s independent expertise.
In addition to the federal criminal probe, the FAA’s inspector general is reviewing the process by which the agency certified the 737 MAX as safe, and congressional committees are investigating. It’s hard to know where the criminal inquiry will go, but both DOJ and Congress should demand that Boeing’s governance be restructured so that the president and CEO doesn’t also chair the board of directors. That board also needs an airplane-safety committee with the expertise and authority to ask tough questions. The FAA should resist pressure to certify the 737 Max safe until Canada and the European Union also agree.
Once the 737 Max is recertified to fly, Boeing reportedly plans a public-relations campaign to reassure customers that it’s safe. But accountability and action will speak far more persuasively than words when it comes to blundering Boeing and its star-crossed airliner.