Friday, July 19, 2024

How Boeing Fell from Grace

Written By Keshav Mohta (Grade 11)

In the past few years, there have been a number of high-profile mishaps involving Boeing airplanes. It started with two major crashes in the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, one operated by Ethiopian Airlines and the other by Lion Air. These accidents resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives. The cause was traced back to a defect in the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). This software, designed to prevent stalls, had a sensor flaw that caused the planes to nosedive uncontrollably.

Despite the resulting outcry, regulatory authorities like the FAA has conducted stringent checks that had rendered the planes safe for future flights. However, in January 2024, an alarming incident occurred on an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX when a door plug fell off mid-flight due to loose bolts. Inspections in aircraft owned by other airlines revealed the same issue of loose or missing bolts, raising serious concerns about Boeing’s aircraft maintenance procedures. Additionally, there were reports of a tire falling off a Boeing aircraft and another incident involving a fuel leak.

This was extremely strange for a company like Boeing which for over 80 years, had built a reputation as one of the most trusted names in aviation. The investigations and PR scandal that followed have pushed Boeing into losses and on the path to bankruptcy.

To understand the current crisis, it’s essential to look back at Boeing’s history and its guiding philosophy. Quite like Steve Jobs’ Apple, Boeing, too, was obsessed over product quality. Jobs insisted on a more aesthetic white plastic shell for the Apple II and scratch-free glass screens for the iPhone, even though these decisions were costly. This product-first approach paid off, as Apple’s high-quality products garnered immense customer loyalty and market success. Similarly, Boeing was driven by a commitment to engineering excellence. Their first commercial aircraft was the Boeing 707, which boasted unmatched range and passenger capacity. Compared to the next best Lockheed Tri-star which could carry 400 passengers and had a range of 4,600 miles, the 707 could carry 460 passengers and fly 9,200 miles non-stop. This is probably because Boeing’s intent with the 707 was to build the best passenger airplane in the world. Later, they built the 747, spending $1 billion on R&D, which at the time was half their revenue. The 747 is one of the most well-known wide-body jets that stretched technological limits and became a game-changer in aviation. It remained unmatched for 37 years as the largest passenger aircraft ever. Boeing’s success was attributed to its engineering-driven culture, where even executives were engineers focused on creating the best possible products.

In 1996, Boeing has 53% market share and the rest was split between Airbus and McDonald Douglas. In a huge move, Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas. Despite being the smaller company, McDonnell Douglas’s leadership took over key roles. This marked the beginning of a transformation from an engineering-centric culture to one driven by business and market considerations. Symbolic of this change, was when the HQ and management moved to Chicago, 2,000 miles away from its manufacturing setup in Seattle, Washington.

In the early 2000s, Boeing started development of the 787 Dreamliner but an large focus was put on doing it cheaply. To do so, they outsourced a lot of the manufacturing. In fact, 70% of the aircraft was outsourced to 50 manufacturing partners. This made the 787’s manufacturing extremely complex and instead of saving costs, the logistical issues saw caused budget overruns. From the expected $8-20 billion, the 787 cost $32 billion.

When Airbus announced the A320neo family, a more cost-efficient plane that outperformed the Boeing 737, instead of developing a new aircraft to compete, Boeing chose to modify the existing 737. Of course, this cost a lot less, estimated to be the tenth of the cost if they had built a new plane. This became the 737 MAX. To start deploying the plane quickly, they fast tracked the development of the aircraft by using most of the same already certified parts of the 737 and attached larger engines. Thus, the crew did not have to be re-trained and certification would happen quickly. There was no mandatory simulation training prescribed for the crew either.

To add the larger engines, Boeing had to place them slightly higher on the wing than before, to maintain ground clearance. This caused an expected lift in the nose mid-air. To counter this, they introduced the MCAS which would push the nose down and eventually caused those fatal Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air accidents.

Boeing’s shift from a product-focused approach to one prioritising financial metrics and shareholder value has had disastrous consequences. The disconnect between management and engineering has led to compromised product quality and safety, ultimately resulting in significant losses for the company.

Featured Image Courtesy – Economy Middle East

Keshav Mohta
Keshav Mohta
I live in Mumbai, India with my parents. I enjoy coding, robotics, and play the drums. I also write articles and stories. I have written two books which are published and can be found on Amazon and Goodreads. Here is a link to my latest book.


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