One long-time Boeing staffer likened it to being a kid in the middle of a divorce. Your parents are trying to maintain an even keel, keeping day-to-day life as normal as possible. Your daily routine is unchanged — going to school, doing your homework in the evening — but everyone is keenly aware of the stress in the family, attending to a crisis that consumes your parents’ attention.
That’s life inside Boeing’s commercial division right now. In more than a dozen interviews in recent weeks, employees at varying levels and different areas of the company tell The Air Current that they are in a state of institutional limbo seven months after the crash of Lion Air flight 610 and two months since Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 that triggered the global grounding of the 737 Max. The crashes claimed a total of 346 lives.
Boeing, of course, does far more than just build 737 Max aircraft. Its sprawling production system is still chugging along. Its tens of thousands of employees are churning out airplanes and designing new ones. But as the grounding of the 737 Max grinds on into its third month, the crisis is permeating all corners of the company’s operations.
“We are all grieving and it’s understandable the situation is affecting teammates,” said Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Kevin McAllister in a statement to The Air Current. “Our employees take tremendous pride designing and building the airplanes that carry people, including families and friends, to destinations around the globe. With the tragic loss of lives in the MAX accidents, the knowledge of how their work matters can also be a heavy weight.”
Sadness, frustration, uncertainty and anger are common, even in areas of the enterprise that have nothing to do with the 737 Max. Machinists, engineers, analysts and executives say they’re trying to stay focused on their day-to-day tasks, but expressed deep uneasiness about what may still lie ahead.
It’s “not so hot around here,” says one machinist. “We’re all feeling sick about what happened. And concerned about what the future holds.”
The 737 Max is still at least three months away from flying passengers again. Once it returns to flying, Boeing and the airlines flying the 737 Max have the task of rebuilding confidence in the aircraft. According to an unscientific poll recently fielded by The Air Current, 48% of the nearly 6,700 respondents on Twitter answered ‘No’ when asked if they’d feel comfortable flying on the 737 Max when it returned to service.
“If people don’t trust to fly us, then we have nothing,” said the machinist.
Boeing said Thursday it had completed development on the updated Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software package that has been at the center of both 737 Max crashes. The company said it is now providing training documentation to the FAA on the system’s revised functionality. Federal Aviation Administration chief Dan Elwell said Wednesday he expected Boeing to deliver the finalized MCAS software and training updates for certification evaluations within a week or so.
McAllister, who joined Boeing from General Electric in January 2016, said the company is “supporting and talking with employees regularly in every corner of our business to keep them informed but also to help them through this difficult time.”
Staff across the company were recently required to watch a training video, part of the company’s annual ethics “recommitment.” This year’s video featured a recently-recorded leadership discussion, along with generic examples of ethically-challenging situations. “Your decisions can cost lives” and “We’ve got to do better” were common refrains from the Boeing executives on the video, including Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg, according to two who saw the video.
Muilenburg on April 29 said Boeing “followed exactly the steps in our design and certification process that consistently produce safe airplanes,” but employees watching the videos said the underlying message about the 737 Max was unsubtle. “Everyone in that room pretty much said, ‘F*** you, we didn’t cause this’,” said one 787 program staffer who was present, commenting on the same collective pressure across the company to meet cost targets and schedule deadlines. “Let’s just say it wasn’t well received.”
Despite that rift, which was echoed in other interviews as well, McAllister said, “We will continue to pull together during this tragedy, look out for each other, and rally around our shared commitment to safety and quality.”
New Airplane Plans
Behind the scenes, work progresses on Boeing’s design for the 7K7 New Mid-Market Airplane (NMA). The program held its Gate 3 milestone review several weeks ago, stopping just short of bringing its proposal to the board of directors for its green-light, according to two people familiar with the reviews. “They just didn’t formally close [the development gate] due to the Max situation,” said one NMA staffer. “They are telling us no let up and no change to the schedule.” Boeing has said it wants to have the airplane ready for 2025.
But even as work progresses, decisions aren’t being taken by top company leadership whose attention is consumed by the 737 Max. One senior Boeing official was frustrated at the program’s stasis, concerned that the longer a decision to launch extends, the more challenging it will be to maintain the institutional memory from the last time the company launched an all-new airplane, 15 years ago with the 787 Dreamliner.
While the 737 Max dominates headlines, hanging in the background is a major new development program. The 777X would otherwise be front and center under normal circumstances. The first test aircraft, WH001, has been progressing toward first flight. The debut had been planned for March 13, was overshadowed by the Ethiopian Flight 302 on March 10 and the grounding of the Max that same day by U.S. regulators. WH001 is still more than a month away from flying, with its maiden sortie now aimed for late June at the earliest. “Everything’s late,” said one program engineer, part of what they described as “typical first production stuff.”
Boeing said the airplane will still fly in 2019, per its public guidance.
The company had been planning on flying in late April, but has slowed its pace toward flying as the first two flight test aircraft are prepared on the flight line in Everett, Wash. The Max is on everyone’s mind, said the engineer. “We all have somber, even upset moments” but “people are really focused” on getting the airplane safely into the air.
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