Viewpoint: Boeing keeps digging the hole deeper

Latest email dump shows company’s own employees feared flying on MAX, called FAA regulators “dogs watching TV” and said airline customers were incompetent.


Boeing’s latest email dump that was released to the public shows very clearly Boeing put profit ahead of people, according to its own employees, who, in their internal communications about the 737 MAX, said the airplane was “designed by clowns who are in turn supervised by monkeys”.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Boeing employees asked themselves if they would put their own families on the MAX and the answer was clearly, “no”, according to one message. Adding fuel to the fire, Boeing employees also mocked regulators at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), saying in one email that a Boeing presentation in 2015 to the FAA was so complicated “it was like dogs watching TV”.

Where all this goes is anyone’s guess, but it opens the possibility, however distant, that Boeing Commercial Airplanes could be split off from the rest of the company – Boeing Defence, Space & Security, and Boeing’s Global Services. I read an interesting column in early January that laid out just this scenario and at the time dismissed the possibility. But the longer the MAX is grounded and the more this constant drip, drip, drip of damaging communications continues, the higher the chances that Boeing Commercial Airplanes could be hived off to prevent it from bleeding dry the rest of the company.

OUT THE DOOR: Boeing’s ex-CEO Dennis Muilenburg walked away from the company with more than US$60 million in long-term incentives, stock awards, and pension benefits. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

What others are saying

Friends and relatives of the dead passengers on Lion Air’s Boeing 737 MAX want Boeing executives prosecuted. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

Prison Time?

To download the Boeing emails, click on the image above.

Boeing, as a company, is already facing considerable legal jeopardy in the form of hundreds of civil lawsuits stemming from the crashes of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines MAX models that killed 346 people. The company is also under criminal investigation by US authorities for the development of the MAX. The latest emails open up the possibility that Boeing employees themselves could face criminal prosecution and prison if it can be proven they lied to FAA regulators by “covering up” issues with the MAX simulators as detailed in one of the communications. Even more serious, if it can be proven they lied about the safety of the MAX and knew the plane was a danger to the public, under the legal doctrine of the “felony murder rule”, those employees could, theoretically, face murder charges for the deaths of those 346 Boeing MAX passengers. Prosecutors would have to show the employees knew that their actions presented a “foreseeable” danger to life and the link between the offence and the death(s) must not be too remote. In Boeing’s case, the link seems clear because Boeing’s own employees questioned the safety of the plane, they admitted in writing to “covering up” information to FAA officials and two planes crashed killing 346 people.

For its part, Boeing issued a statement that “we regret the content of these communications, and apologise to the FAA, Congress, our airline customers and to the flying public for them…The language used in these communications, and some of the sentiments they express, are inconsistent with Boeing values, and the company is taking appropriate action in response. This will ultimately include disciplinary or other personnel action, once the necessary reviews are completed.”

Boeing announced in December it would “pause” production of the 737 MAX. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

The End Game

Where does Boeing go from here? No one, least of all Boeing, seems to know and the latest emails are surely not the last we’ll see if recent history is anything to judge by. As the investigations continue, as the lawsuits wind their way through the justice system and as Boeing continues to shoot itself in the foot and dig its hole deeper, more information will come to light that profits took priority at one of American’s (former) premier companies.

Part of the aviation industry’s problem is that it is a mature industry, which forces manufacturers like Boeing, and Airbus, to focus on financial management because big, game-changing improvements like moving from propeller-driven aircraft to the jet age are no longer possible. Composites have helped, more fuel-efficient engines have helped, but these are really incremental changes that make planes 5 percent or 10 percent more efficient. And that’s the future…tweaking the product to make small improvements.

And financial engineering – as opposed to nuts and bolts engineering – is what Boeing has become known for in recent years. Its top leadership and board members are great at designing spreadsheets and managing financial risk. But in their rush to produce a competitor to the Airbus A320, it’s obvious – according to Boeing’s own employees – that they did put profit over people (and safety). In the process, Boeing has lost the trust of its own employees, global regulators, its airline customers, and the flying public. Earning that trust back, if it can even be done, will take years and billions of dollars.

In my view, Boeing might be better off cutting its losses, split off the commercial airplane business, and ditching the MAX in favour of a clean-sheet design that takes the best of the MAX attributes but fixes the physics problems of the larger engines. Will that happen? I doubt it. But if Boeing doesn’t do something soon – something big – it will continue to bleed cash and will never be trusted again, by anyone.

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Matthew Driskill is the Editor of Asian Aviation and is based in Cambodia. He has been an Asia-based journalist and content producer since 1990 for outlets including Reuters and the International Herald Tribune/New York Times and is a former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong. He frequently appears on international broadcast outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC and has taught journalism at Hong Kong University and the American University of Paris. Driskill has received awards from the Associated Press for Investigative Reporting and Business Writing and in 1989 was named the John J. McCloy Fellow by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York where he earned his Master's Degree.


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