By The Herald Editorial Board
Here’s where the crisis in confidence in Boeing’s 737 MAX airliners has landed us:
For an aviation giant whose frequently flying fans once boasted, “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going,” major media outlets, including The New York Times, have been advising travelers how they can avoid flying on a Boeing 737 MAX 9, the focus of the latest fear-of-flying anxieties after a “door plug” on an Alaska Airlines MAX 9 blew out shortly after takeoff from Portland, Ore., on Jan. 5, causing the plane’s rapid decompression and forcing a return to the airport, though with no fatalities or serious injuries.
Among the Times advice: Book your flights through Kayak, which has created a new filter that allows the exclusion of MAX 9 — and MAX 8 — flights. That filter will limit choices and eliminate some flights altogether, such as Alaska’s route between Anchorage and Kona, Hawaii, but some travelers might make that trade for greater peace of mind.
The panel failure was quickly addressed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which grounded the MAX 9 jets, 171 one of them, used on domestic flights by Alaska and United Airlines. As of late January, the FAA had — with completion of detailed inspection measures — cleared the jets to return to service.
But closer scrutiny for Boeing, long overdue, is just beginning.
“Indefensible”: Among those who had to rebook flights after airlines canceled 737 MAX 9 flights was U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who represents the 2nd Congressional District and is the ranking member on the House aviation subcommittee.
“I told Boeing I can’t defend the indefensible, and I’m not going to ask anyone to do that, but it’s a problem they need to resolve,” Larsen said in an interview with the editorial board in late January. “They” and others being Boeing; Spirit AeroSystems, its supplier of fuselages for the 737 MAX jets; and the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, as work continues to complete inspections, audits and reviews of the MAX 9 airliners and the companies’ manufacturing and certification processes.
About a month in to those investigations, a preliminary report by the NTSB found that four key bolts used to secure the plane’s “door plug” — which seals off an additional emergency exit for planes with fewer seats — were not reinstalled when workers at Boeing’s Renton plant removed the panel to repair faulty rivets that were discovered following the fuselage’s delivery from Spirit AeroSystems, in Wichita, Kan., according to a report Tuesday by the Seattle Times.
At the same time, Boeing has reported that it will need to “rework” 50 737 MAX jets now in production after improperly drilled holes in fuselages were discovered. While Boeing said the misdrilled holes didn’t pose an “immediate” safety issue, the discovery was likely to delay deliveries to some airlines, The Washington Post reported Monday.
Lax attention to safety: The FAA and its new administrator, Michael Whitaker, testified Tuesday before the House aviation subcommittee that Boeing — under pressure to deliver on a backlog of orders — isn’t paying enough attention to safety, the Associated Press reported.
“One, what is wrong with this airplane? But two, what’s going on with the production at Boeing?” Whitaker asked. “There have been issues in the past. They don’t seem to be getting resolved, so we feel like we need to have a heightened level of oversight.”
Those past issues include the fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX 8 airliners that killed 189 people on a Lion Air flight in Indonesia in October 2018, and 157 people on an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March 2019. Both crashes were later blamed on a new flight control system designed for the revamped 737s. After the first disaster, the FAA and Boeing said they were evaluating the need for software or other design changes, but the FAA didn’t ground the MAX 8 fleet until after the second disaster.
The FAA with the MAX 9 incident, at least, has learned to react more quickly to air safety failures. And Boeing was not unresponsive after the MAX 8 disasters, firing its top commercial airplane division executive, Kevin McAllister, and CEO Dennis Mullenburg in late 2019.
Ignored warnings: Alaska Airlines also is due for some introspection and outside review of its practices here. Prior to the “door plug” incident, crews on three flights on the same plane reported warning lights regarding the plane’s cabin pressurization. Yet Alaska, rather than remove the plane from service and send it to Boeing for inspection, restricted the flight from its longer routes over water to Hawaii, but cleared it for flights over land. The plane, with 171 passengers and six crew members, was en route from Portland to Ontario, Calif., when the failure happened at about 16,000 feet.
Even over land, a recurring warning about a plane’s pressurization — which seems likely to have been caused by the unbolted door panel — demands greater scrutiny than the average driver would give the “check engine” light on their car.
Slow it down: Even as the FAA cleared the MAX 9 to return to flight, it also capped Boeing’s production rate for the airliner at 38 aircraft per month and delayed production of further versions of the 737 MAX jet, after Boeing had earlier announced plans to ramp up production. The FAA’s Whitaker, in a statement, said no expansion of production would be approved until “we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved.”
That additional regulatory scrutiny now is closer to happening with reauthorization of the FAA by Congress. Already adopted by the House, the reauthoriziation bill won approval from the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. A floor vote should follow in coming weeks.
Among a range of provisions, Cantwell said in a statement, “the bill will put more FAA safety inspectors on factory floors,” allowing a shift from the past practice of the FAA using company employees to perform some safety analysis.
Assessing the risks: Critics have long rued the perceived change in Boeing management philosophy from a company run by engineers to one run by accountants, more focused on profit margin and production speed than on job quality and safety. That may be an unfair assessment; this is an industry that operates on a dynamic tension in its duty to shareholders, the costs of materials and labor, the demand from airlines and the comfort and safety of passengers and what those passengers are willing to pay for their business and pleasure travel.
But bean-counters, along with the bottom line, must also assess the financial risks — including inattention to production problems that result in quality and safety concerns — that weigh on the confidence of customers, both among the airlines ordering jets and the passengers booking flights.
If the crackdown by regulators and the threat to slow production do not get that point across, perhaps Kayak’s MAX 9 — If it’s Boeing, I’m not going — filter will.