The fallout for Boeing will extend far beyond the 737 Max 9 grounding

“It’s almost surreal,” said one top U.S. airline executive. “There’s no way out of this.”

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Release Date
January 13, 2024
The fallout for Boeing will extend far beyond the 737 Max 9 grounding
The New York Times described it as “Banquo’s ghost”, a reference to the murdered political rival that haunts Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The ghost following the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 after its fatal May 1979 Chicago crash — at the time the worst air disaster in U.S. history — was not the grounding which ended after 38 days and resulted in updates to both maintenance procedures and aircraft systems that would prevent a recurrence. Rather, it was the specter of another accident that would again threaten public confidence in the airplane.

There were two more fatal crashes at the end of 1979 involving DC-10s. Neither was the fault of the airplane, but they served to reinforce the impression that the airplane was somehow fatally flawed. By May 1980 the Times was describing a “pall” that had fallen over the aircraft.

Related: The DC-10, 737 Max and the struggle to polish a tarnished airplane

Four decades later, the strategic risk to Boeing following two fatal crashes of its 737 Max was never going to be solely isolated to those accidents and the model’s subsequent grounding. While the facts and specifics of Lion Air 610 in 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines 302 in 2019 may have become fogged over time for the general public, the emotional memory is easily stirred, poking at barely healed scars.

Another in a series of safety crises has again arrived at Boeing’s doorstep. The 737 Max 9, still the largest capacity single-aisle aircraft Boeing can deliver, is grounded in the configuration flown by Alaska Airlines and United Airlines — arguably the plane maker’s two closest customers and ones who have sworn by their confidence in Boeing and its products. That there was no loss of life or a more serious physical injury sustained by the 171 passengers and six crew aboard Alaska 1282 is nothing short of a miracle or a fortuitous role of the dice.

Aviation entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker emblazoned on the tail of the first Norwegian Air Shuttle 737 Max 8. Laker is holding a large model of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which was grounded and caused major disruption to his Laker Airways.
Aviation entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker emblazoned on the tail of the first Norwegian Air Shuttle 737 Max 8. Laker is holding a large model of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which was grounded and caused major disruption to his Laker Airways.

Fixing the 737 Max in 2020 was viewed by many inside Boeing as a quantitative solution. Boeing could point to lines of code, updated manuals, and new training as the remedy to preventing a third crash. In 2024, the solution is qualitative — quite literally. Though it is not just a search to understand what quality lapse caused the left-hand plug exit to fail at 14,830 feet on Jan. 5, but also a wholesale look at how Boeing has been conducting its business

Related: Inside the strained union of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems

Getting the 737 Max 9 safely back in service is priority one for the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and airlines, but the fallout for Boeing will stretch far beyond the Max 9. The precise duration of the Max 9 grounding remains uncertain with an iterative back-and-forth taking place between the FAA, Boeing and airlines on the inspection criteria. Yet, almost certainly, according to interviews with multiple senior executives at Boeing’s most important customers and suppliers, there is an expectation of significant new delays in certifying the 737 Max 7 and 10. 

“It’s almost surreal,” said one top U.S. airline executive of another Max-related grounding and the lack of clarity for airlines. “There’s no way out of this.”

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