As they work to repair flawed software that is believed to have caused the crash of two 737 Max planes in the past year, Boeing officials also must repair the public’s trust in the aerospace giant that is the largest private employer in Washington.
Company CEO Dennis Muilenburg is scheduled to meet with Congress next week, testifying before the Senate Commerce and House Transportation committees. Muilenburg, who recently was stripped of his co-position as chairman by the company’s board, must demonstrate that safety, public confidence in air travel and a willingness to admit problems will take precedence.
A year ago, the crash of a 737 Max in Indonesia resulted in 189 deaths; months later, a 737 Max went down in Ethiopia, killing 157 people. The crashes resulted in the global grounding of the plane as U.S. and foreign regulators seek answers. Since then, Boeing’s response to scrutiny of the problematic Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — which, according to investigations, played a role in the crashes — has done little to restore the public’s trust.
Reports have indicated that the Federal Aviation Administration approved pilot training for the 737 that consisted of one hour on an iPad and contained no reference to the MCAS program.
On Friday, a congressional committee released a 2016 instant message chat between two senior pilots. One who had tested the plane on a simulator wrote the MCAS system was “running rampant in the sim” and causing the plane to move without pilot input. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called the revelation “deeply troubling,” and other congressional members expressed outrage at Boeing’s failure to previously acknowledge the conversation.
Release of the discussion — and questions about what Boeing officials knew and when they knew it — contributed to a 7 percent decline in the company’s stock price Friday, and a further decline Monday morning. In addition, CNBC reported that Boeing suppliers had seen stock prices slip.
The long-term health of the company, however, is more important than a stock slip and remains essential to the Washington economy. Founded in Seattle in 1916, the company played a significant role in turning Seattle into a major city and building the Washington economy, with vendors scattered throughout the state. Boeing headquarters moved to Chicago in 2001, but its largest manufacturing plant remains in Everett (although the 737 is not built there), and the company employs about 70,000 Washingtonians.
Because of that, we will keep a close eye on how the corporation handles perhaps the biggest crisis in its history. Transparency from company leaders will be necessary to restore the faith of the flying public and regulators throughout the world. So will a comprehensive fix for the MCAS system, one that undergoes stringent testing from the FAA rather than the haphazard approach apparently employed prior to initial approval of the system.
Investigations have shown that federal regulators left much of the approval process to Boeing officials as part of the Trump administration’s crusade of deregulation. Rather than serving as the public’s watchdog, the FAA in this case acquiesced to the desires of big business. The results were tragic.
One positive result of the episode could be to reinforce the need for robust regulation of industries that can put public safety at risk. Another could be that Boeing emerges stronger by embracing its responsibility to the public. Company officials must demonstrate that such responsibility is their top priority.