A Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 sits on the tarmac at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, Indonesia, April 13, 2019. Indonesia said Dec. 29, 2021, it is lifting its ban on Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft, three years after one crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. (Nicole Evatt / Associated Press file photo)

A Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 sits on the tarmac at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, Indonesia, April 13, 2019. Indonesia said Dec. 29, 2021, it is lifting its ban on Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft, three years after one crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. (Nicole Evatt / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: Boeing quality proving difficult to recapture

The company seeks to assure its rededication to quality, but recent news is getting in the way.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Boeing is doing its best to make it clear to federal officials, the public, air passengers and the airlines that spend millions on its planes that it is making every effort to ensure that — in the words of outgoing CEO David Calhoun — a “quality escape,” such as the blow-out of a fuselage door panel from a 737 Max plane leaving Portland, Ore., on Jan 5, doesn’t happen again.

But the news keeps getting in the way of that message.

On May 25, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 jet, flying at 34,000 feet on its way from Phoenix to Oakland, Calif., experienced a loss of control termed a “Dutch roll,” also called a “coupled oscillation” where the jet sways and wobbles. During the incident, the plane’s tail section sustained “substantial” damage, although no one was injured. While the cause remains under investigation, a former FAA accident investigator told The New York Times that a plane’s computers can usually adjust for the conditions that cause the sway, but noted that a failed component might be a factor in the incident.

Last week, Boeing revealed to the Federal Aviation Administration that it had discovered that its fuselage supplier, Spirit Aerosystems, had received and used titanium parts that had been supplied to the company with falsified certification. Small holes from corrosion had been found in some titanium parts. The counterfeit titanium also had been used on wings for Airbus jets that Spirit also produces.

That was followed this week by news of an allegation by a Boeing quality inspector that Boeing’s plant in Renton, which makes the 737 Max jets, had lost track of some 400 faulty parts over the past year, some of which may have been installed on 737s. The whistle-blowing report by the inspector — of the type Boeing says it is now encouraging — was released by a U.S. Senate subcommittee. The same inspector, Bloomberg reported, also claimed Boeing had intentionally hidden some nonconforming parts, including rudders and flaps, from the FAA ahead of an onsite inspection.

All of that came to light as Boeing gave the FAA its plan to address systemic quality-control issues and Calhoun testified before the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee about those efforts.

Calhoun, who plans to step down at the end of the year, outlined its plans including extension of its training for new hires to 14 weeks from 10 weeks, ordering more tools and equipment, requiring managers to spend more time on the factory floors and less in meetings and increasing its own inspections at Boeing plants and at that of fuselage-maker Spirit Aerosystems. Boeing also plans to step up its oversight by reacquiring Spirit, which it spun off in 2005.

“We demanded that Spirit treat us as an inspection authority on their premise and treat it like an FAA ticket so that not a single fuselage would leave that facility that wasn’t in perfect condition to come to ours,” Calhoun said during his committee testimony.

That commitment to quality assurance, however, was necessary years ago when the 737 Max was in development and during its early years of design, construction and certification, prior to catastrophic failures in 2018 and 2019 that involved the 737 Max crashes of Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines planes, which killed 346 people and forced a 20-month grounding of the Max jets.

Both crashes were found to have been caused by a computerized flight control system, called MCAS for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, intended to stabilize the plane and prevent stalling, to account for the Max’s more powerful engines fitted on a general plane design that had first flown in 1984. Boeing took that route in developing the 737 Max to satisfy market demand more quickly, without the expense and time necessary for developing a new airliner.

As well, the FAA — and its overseers and budget writers in Congress and prior presidential administrations — are not blameless in allowing an inspection culture that provided Boeing too much leeway in approving its own work, even after the 737 air disasters.

Following the two 737 Max crashes, a federal Department of Transportation committee was tasked with examining the relationship between aerospace companies and federal regulators, specifically the FAA’s practice of delegating a significant portion of safety reviews to manufacturers’ employees. The review, which was launched in 2019 by then-Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao — and a Trump administration eager to deregulate — concluded in its report in late 2020 that the practice of handing off inspections was “effective,” “rigorous and robust,” pointing to a relatively low fatality rate for air travel. Between 1996 and 2018, that fatality rate dropped from 81 deaths per 100 million passengers to 0.6 deaths per 100 million passengers.

Yet, that fatality rate offered little comfort to families of those lost on Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, and the effective-rigorous-and-robust assurance ignored disturbing details of investigations and revelations regarding those disasters, how the Boeing 737 Max was certified, how pilots were — or weren’t — trained or even provided manuals on MCAS and potential failures and efforts to conceal concerns before and even after the first crash.

The FAA now recognizes the error in its hands-off approach, FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker told the same Senate committee in a hearing prior to Calhoun’s.

“The FAA’s approach was too hands-off, too focused on paperwork audits and not focused enough on inspections,” Whitaker said during a June 13 hearing before the Senate transportation committee. “We have changed that approach over the last several months, and those changes are permanent.”

Among the changes, The New York Times reported, are a permanent increase of in-person inspections and barring Boeing from ramping up the 737 Max production rate until the agency is satisfied with quality control and safety improvements.

Boeing, despite apologies and assurances, may not escape further accountability.

Some of the families of those killed in the two 737 crashes now are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to fine Boeing $24.8 billion, seek criminal prosecution of Boeing officials who were leading the company at the time, including then-CEO Dennis Muilenbger, and end a 2021 settlement that suspended prosecution of fraud against the company for failing to uphold safety standards, which the Jan. 5 door plug incident may have now voided.

The Atlantic in a recent article about Boeing’s woes, retells the story of Bill Boeing, the company’s founder, on the factory floor in 1916 and his notice of an improperly cut wing rib. Boeing dropped the part to the floor and stomped it to bits.

“I, for one, will close up shop rather than send out work of this kind,” Boeing said.

Bill Boeing is no longer around to shutter his factory, but the company’s cost- and corner-cutting and emphasis of expedience and profit over quality and safety may end up having done that for him.

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