Boeing CEO’s letter to flyers steers clear of the 737 Max’s key safety lapses

Reputation is on the line.
Reputation is on the line.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
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A little over a week after the deadly crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max jet, the aircraft maker’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg put out a personal statement to passengers, airlines, and the aviation community yesterday (March 18) expressing sorrow over the second crash using this particular aircraft, and pledging the company’s commitment to safety.

That commitment has been in doubt in recent days due to a slew of information about problems around the 737 Max’s design, safety checks, and induction into global fleets since 2017. The Ethiopian crash killed 157 people, while the October crash of a Lion Air plane in Indonesia using the same aircraft model killed 189 people. The first crash drew the attention of investigators to a new anti-stall system on the plane, which pilots wrestled against during their brief flight.

It’s the second communication from the Boeing CEO in as many days, and comes as crisis PR experts have recommended (paywall) he be less muted in his public response:

We know lives depend on the work we do, and our teams embrace that responsibility with a deep sense of commitment every day. Our purpose at Boeing is to bring family, friends and loved ones together with our commercial airplanes—safely. The tragic losses of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610 affect us all, uniting people and nations in shared grief for all those in mourning. Our hearts are heavy, and we continue to extend our deepest sympathies to the loved ones of the passengers and crew on board.

Safety is at the core of who we are at Boeing, and ensuring safe and reliable travel on our airplanes is an enduring value and our absolute commitment to everyone. This overarching focus on safety spans and binds together our entire global aerospace industry and communities. We’re united with our airline customers, international regulators and government authorities in our efforts to support the most recent investigation, understand the facts of what happened and help prevent future tragedies. Based on facts from the Lion Air Flight 610 accident and emerging data as it becomes available from the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 accident, we’re taking actions to fully ensure the safety of the 737 MAX…

Boeing has been in the business of aviation safety for more than 100 years, and we’ll continue providing the best products, training and support to our global airline customers and pilots. This is an ongoing and relentless commitment to make safe airplanes even safer…

…Our entire team is devoted to the quality and safety of the aircraft we design, produce and support. I’ve dedicated my entire career to Boeing, working shoulder to shoulder with our amazing people and customers for more than three decades, and I personally share their deep sense of commitment. Recently, I spent time with our team members at our 737 production facility in Renton, Wash., and once again saw firsthand the pride our people feel in their work and the pain we’re all experiencing in light of these tragedies. The importance of our work demands the utmost integrity and excellence—that’s what I see in our team, and we’ll never rest in pursuit of it.

Muilenburg’s statement comes after a report in the Seattle Times detailed lapses in safety checks for the 737 Max, which was grounded globally last week, including significant changes to the design of the new anti-stall system between early safety checks at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the final version that went into fleets, and the decision to rely on data from a single sensor to allow the system to activate. Muilenburg’s statement doesn’t allude to any of that.

Boeing didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment on Muilenburg’s communication.

The US Department of Transportation is now looking at how the FAA granted approval for the jet. Federal prosecutors are examining the development of the Max, and at least one subpoena has been issued (paywall). Two air crash investigations are still underway: Ethiopia will put out a preliminary report in 30 days, and Indonesia has said it will release its final report on the the Lion Air crash in July or August.

The inquiries—and lawsuits stemming from the crashes (paywall)—put Boeing in a difficult position when it comes to its communicating around the Max, and especially with passengers. No one who makes a plane ever wants to see it go down, but nor is explaining the processes behind aviation engineering and testing in plain English an easy task. Yet, non-specific pledges are hardly reassuring to passengers who gave the plane and its maker the benefit of the doubt in the wake of the first crash. (I chose to fly on a 737 Max 8 jet just seven weeks after the first crash in large part because of the deep level of faith I share with most airline passengers in the aviation system.)

Four months, and one more crash later, most passengers are no longer able to do that. It’s true we don’t know yet that the Ethiopian Airlines crash was linked to the activation of the anti-stall system. We only know that Ethiopian officials have said that black-box data show “clear similarities” to the Lion Air crash, in which the anti-stall system repeatedly pointed the plane’s nose down. The FAA has said that “refined” satellite data and physical evidence show that the Ethiopian flight resembles the Lion Air one, but hasn’t elaborated further.

All the more reason that passengers need concrete information about what regulators—and the plane’s manufacturer—are doing to prevent it from happening again, including in developing future models. One place to start could be by putting some of the company’s communications into language understandable by people who fly, but who don’t make or pilot planes. What, for example, can a regular passenger make of phrases like “[the enhancement] provides a limit to the stabilizer command in order to retain elevator authority” or “[MCAS] improves the behavior of the airplane in a non-normal part of the operating envelope,” both found in a statement on the upcoming software change that will make the 737 Max safer?