Special Briefing: Can Boeing Ever Soar Again?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because safety always comes first.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? Boeing has been struggling with the fallout of two recent crashes of its 737 Max jet — in Indonesia and Ethiopia — which led to the planes being grounded in March. But this week, the Chicago-based company received a strong endorsement when International Airlines Group, owner of British Airways and other European carriers, extended a $24 billion commitment to purchase 200 of its jets. Boeing also claimed to be courting several other customers. While that’s welcome news for Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg and other top execs, the skies aren’t exactly clear for takeoff: The company remains mired in a federal recertification process — one that’ll certainly have global ramifications — to get its grounded planes back in the air, with no clear end in sight.
Why does it matter? Boeing is locked in a longstanding competition for customers against fellow jet manufacturing giant Airbus. But perhaps the more important question is whether the beleaguered company can win back public trust. For now, that seems like an uphill battle: In a recent Atmosphere Research Group poll, only one in five travelers said they’d definitely board a 737 within the first six months of its reintroduction, while around half said they’re unlikely to fly on it.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Bouncing back? IAG’s big-ticket pledge couldn’t have come soon enough — or, apparently, with more enthusiasm. During a press conference at the Paris Air Show, CEO Willie Walsh hailed Boeing as “the brand that I’ve worked with for years. And it’s a brand that I trust.” The former 737 pilot also offered another, and perhaps even stronger, endorsement: “I would get on board a Max tomorrow.” Such praise from the chief of the world’s sixth-largest airline group could prove crucial to Boeing, though some analysts suggest Walsh’s bet is safer than it seems. That’s because no new jets would be delivered before 2023, giving Boeing plenty of time to win regulatory approval. Meanwhile, the company has also snagged commitments from Korean Air and Air Lease Corporation, worth a collective $7.8 billion, for its 787 Dreamliner.
… or maybe not. Despite claims by Boeing that it finished updating the faulty Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), software implicated in both crashes, it’s unclear when the 737 Max will actually get the regulatory thumbs-up. After one Federal Aviation Administration official claimed this month that the plane would be airborn by December, the agency promptly corrected him, saying it has “no timetable.” Then came a Wall Street Journal report saying the FAA’s review has been hobbled by concerns over whether the average pilot is strong enough to turn an emergency crank on the plane to stabilize it. Even more damning was former US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — famous for landing a plane in New York’s Hudson River — telling a U.S. House subcommittee this week the 737 Max “was fatally flawed.” Meanwhile, federal authorities are also quietly probing whether criminal conduct was a factor.
Concerns heard ‘round the world. For their part, European pilots have heaped pressure on the European Aviation Safety Agency to review the 737 Max with total transparency. That means cutting back the involvement of manufacturers in the certification process, a detail that attracted scrutiny back in the U.S. following the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the second fatal disaster, in March. Last month, European Cockpit Association President Jon Horne said this was “critical to regaining credibility among our community.” In China, meanwhile, more than a dozen airlines are reportedly demanding compensation from Boeing for losses in excess of $500 million after the country grounded the world’s largest national fleet of 737s.
It’s up to the boss. All eyes are now trained on Muilenburg, who has apologized twice to the families who lost loved ones. And on the eve of this week’s Paris Air Show, he admitted that Boeing failed to properly alert regulators and airlines about the absence of a cockpit warning light in most 737 models, which may have alerted pilots to the software error implicated in both crashes. One Yale business professor suggested that the 55-year-old’s “engineer’s personality” has hurt Boeing, while others say his hands-on, technical-oriented approach has been useful when meeting customers, plant workers and pilots. Either way, critics are demanding the company, under Muilenburg’s leadership, be more proactive and explicit about the changes it makes.
More planes, more problems. It’s not just the 737 Max that’s under scrutiny: Airline pilots have also reportedly expressed concern over the safety of the 787 after detecting a glitch in its fire-fighting system. The planemaker alerted airlines operating the jet that a flame-extinguishing mechanism in the engine has failed in a “small number” of cases — but the FAA has decided against grounding it.
WHAT TO READ
Boeing’s Boss Wins a Reprieve, Not Redemption, in The Economist
“The big challenge for Mr Muilenburg is to convince the flying public at large to renew their faith in Boeing. His job hangs on it.”
Redline: The Many Human Errors That Brought Down the 737 Boeing Max, by Darryl Campbell in The Verge
“The events that led to these two fatal crashes were set in motion nearly a decade ago, and they started not with Boeing, but with the company’s European archrival, Airbus.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Boeing 737 Max Is the Talk of the Paris Air Show
“It really is up to the regulators and Boeing to prove to everyone — to us as buyers, to the airlines that operate the aircraft and, most importantly, to the traveling public — that this aircraft is in fact safe, and that they’ve made it even more safe.”
Watch on CNBC on YouTube:
‘Sully’ Sullenberger Tells Congress Boeing 737 Max Crashes ‘Should Never Have Happened’
“These crashes are demonstrable evidence that our current system of aircraft design and certification has failed us.”
Watch on TIME on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Aiming higher. While Boeing may be having trouble returning to the skies, the cosmos is apparently more accessible: Just this week, the company announced that it’s moving the headquarters for its space division to central Florida’s so-called Space Coast. There, it’ll work closer with NASA to build the agency’s Space Launch System — which is expected to send humans to the moon and beyond.