It was the final straw for Curtis Ewbank.
The Boeing flight control engineer had repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of the software on the company’s new 737-MAX airplane they were working on, urging his bosses to implement a back-up system, just like they had done on their Dreamliner model.
But his appeals fell on deaf ears, his managers citing concerns about the cost implications. Angry and frustrated, Ewbank quit Boeing in 2015 after his manager told him: “People have to die before Boeing will change things.”
Three years later, on October 29, 2018, fishermen working off the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia, watched in horror as a Lion Air Boeing 737-MAX plowed into the water at 500 miles per hour, killing all 189 people on board.
A few months later, on March 10, 2019, another 737-MAX crashed after take-off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, leaving 157 people dead.
Investigations later found that both aircrafts had suffered the same fatal issue with the plane’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software — one of the critical concerns Ewbank had flagged to Boeing. The system had accidentally triggered on the two planes because a faulty angle of attack (AOA) sensor had transmitted inaccurate information about the position of the plane’s nose, causing it to nosedive, something the pilots were unable to override.
In “Flying Blind — The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing” (Doubleday), out Tuesday, investigative journalist Peter Robison charts the key failings that killed 346 people and why the accidents reveal “the rotted culture of an iconic American company.”
Founded by lumber magnate William Boeing in 1916, the airplane behemoth is now America’s biggest exporter, boasting more than $100 billion in annual revenue and over 100,000 employees.
But the two 737-MAX crashes brought the company to its knees — exposing decades of skimping and saving, cost-cutting and compromises that led to both tragedies.
Boeing’s merger with rival McDonnell Douglas in 1996 was key, because it led to a wholesale change in the airline giant’s ethos, much to the displeasure of staff, Robison argues. Boeing executives, for example, now found themselves having to adopt the “5-15 rule,” imported from McDonnell, where memos shouldn’t take more than five minutes to read and 15 minutes to write. “The idealism just went out,” one insider told Robison. “It was about something else – I guess shareholder value.”
McDonnell executives, later described by federal mediators as “hunter killer assassins,” clashed with Boeing’s “Boy Scouts,” and the workforce grew increasingly disgruntled. In 1999, when engineers were told they would no longer get bonuses in their contracts, it prompted the largest white-collar strike in US history with over 23,000 Boeing workers in six states walking out. Boeing eventually caved but the 40-day strike cost the company an estimated $750 million,
Staff discontent continued to deepen. In 2009, when Boeing launched their new plane, the Dreamliner, workers nicknamed it the “Bottom Liner” and the “End-of-the-Liner,” such was the mood of the weary workforce.
Meanwhile, Phil Condit, Boeing’s CEO at the time, was busy flying around the world on the new $50 million “Boeing Business Jet” he had commissioned with his (fourth) wife, Geda. A conversion of the 737, it was, at the time, the world’s largest-ever business jet, complete with a queen-sized bed, an office, a sofa-lined lounge with a 42-inch flat screen TV, and two bathrooms, one featuring a $250,000 water-saving AquaJet Shower.
In 2003 Condit resigned. Two weeks later, a BusinessWeek exposé revealed that the board had pressured him to go over his strategic missteps and also his womanizing. The married Condit had pursued a relationship with customer relations manager, Laverne Hawthorne, who was later fired and paid a settlement. Before she was terminated, “she went to see [Condit] in his office and reminded him of promises he had made to her,” BusinessWeek reported. “She looked him in the eye and said: ‘One of us in this room has balls, and it certainly isn’t you.’”
Condit was replaced with CEO Jim McNerney, who arrived in 2005 on a $52 million deal but placed cutting costs at the heart of his business plan, Robison writes. A former CEO at General Electric and 3M, McNerney was known for his “rank and yank” strategy of assessing managers and then firing the bottom 10 percent each year.
Critically, he also greenlit Boeing’s new airplane — the 737-MAX — in 2011.
The workhorse of the Boeing fleet, the 737 debuted in January 1967 with mini-skirted stewardesses from Pacific Southwest Airlines standing on the wings. But it was never popular. “It’s like a sh–ty pickup,” Gordon Bethune, a former Boeing executive who also ran Continental Airlines, told Robison.
By the time a fourth redesign of the 737 was given the go-ahead in 2011, largely in a bid to counter the growing threat of Airbus’s A320neo model, the plane was christened the 737-MAX but still failed to impress. “It’s a pig with lipstick,” one former Boeing pilot told Robison. “Such a kludge of an airplane,” remarked the company’s ex-engineer Rick Ludtke. “Designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys,” said one employee who had grown tired of the endless mistakes.
As Robison writes, “Just like the original 737, the design was quick and dirty.”
But unlike the original and its subsequent iterations, the new 737-MAX offered optional extras in a bid to appeal to the growing number of cost-conscious budget airlines. While that made some sense when it came to fittings and furnishings, it was a terrible idea where safety was concerned. “In one fateful example, Boeing charged $80,000 for an AOA indicator — the seemingly peripheral cockpit gauge whose absence would figure in the doomed Lion Air and Ethiopian flights, neither of which was equipped with the optional equipment,” Robison writes.
Worse, Boeing refused to make any changes to the new plane that required existing 737 pilots to retrain using simulators.
Business was tough. While American Airlines placed a $38 billion order for 200 of the MAX, they also ordered 260 of Airbus’s A320neo. As of December 2019, a little over 15,000 of the MAX had been ordered but only 10,571 delivered.
After 10 years at the helm, McNerney retired in 2015, handing over the reins to 51-year-old Dennis Muilenburg who had worked at Boeing since 1985 and was president and CEO of its defense space and security business.
Meanwhile, as the 737 MAX flew, Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) officials sought to inspect the plane but were waved away by Boeing engineers giving them “the drawer full of paper” technique. “If you can just inundate them with information it makes them go away,” one engineer told Robison.
At other times, the FAA-Boeing relationship appeared all too cozy. On one occasion, an FAA manager told Boeing it wasn’t necessary to install a circuit breaker on MAX high-voltage fuel pump wires, even though the agency had insisted on the device for rival Airbus planes. On another, Boeing sent the FAA a proposal detailing how installing an electronic checklist in the cockpit on the new MAX would cost over $10 billion and that any safety improvements would be negligible. The FAA agreed, making the 737-MAX the only big commercial jet not to have one.
“Boeing had optimized its relationship with them,” writes Robison.
After the first 737-MAX went down in Jakarta, CEO Muilenburg embarked on a damage limitation campaign. Appearing on Fox Business, he all but blamed Lion Air for the tragedy. “The bottom line here is the 737 MAX is safe,” he said. “Safety is a core value for us at Boeing.”
So the MAX kept flying, even though the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service concluded that there might be as many as 15 more MAX crashes without a software fix, based on the potential size of the MAX fleet, the hours in the air and the likelihood of pilots not being able to cope in the event of a sensor failure. And yet, no consideration was given to grounding the aircraft. “No Americans were killed. The pilots were foreign. It had vanished from the headlines,” writes Robison.
Before the second crash, one former Boeing executive trawled through incident reports for a congressional committee, discovering that one in 25 MAX planes experienced some sort of safety issue in the months after they had been delivered to their airlines. “Despite that record, Boeing and US aviation officials said the MAX was perfectly safe and let 157 people in Ethiopia file innocently into its cabin on a clear March day, just another routine flight,” says Robison.
To stress just how unsafe the MAX was, Robison points out that, in 2018, there was a fatal crash once in every three million flights, but “before its grounding, the MAX, in its limited service, had a fatal accident rate of one in every 200,000 flights — a frequency not seen since the early days of the jet age.”
While Boeing did what they could to keep the MAX in the air, nobody else was prepared to take any more chances. China took the lead in grounding the MAX on March 11, 2019, followed by the European Union, India, Australia, Singapore and Canada. Eventually, the 737-MAX was grounded worldwide on March 13.
The 737-MAX was grounded for two years before finally being cleared to fly again in the United States by the FAA in March 2021 after all changes to software, wiring and pilot training were complete. But it had been an expensive crisis for Boeing, with lost or delayed orders, compensation for airlines who had cancelled thousands of MAX flights, and even storage costs for the planes they couldn’t deliver costing the company an estimated $20 billion.
When it came to remunerating CEOs, though, Boeing never seemed to cut costs. Just two months after the Lion Air crash, Boeing gave Muilenburg the biggest paycheck of his life — $31 million, including a $13 million bonus for performance. After he was fired in the wake of the Addis Ababa tragedy, his fall was softened by a $60 million golden parachute.
Or, in other words, about $10 million less than the compensation Boeing initially pledged to the families of the 346 people who died in Jakarta and Addis Ababa.