Boeing: How much trouble is the company in?

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  • by Theo Leggett
  • Business correspondent, BBC News

image Source, alaska airlines

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Mid-air explosions in January involving an Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9, like this one

Captain Dennis Tajer describes flying the Boeing 737 Max as, “It feels like I’m watching an upset child.”

The head of American Airlines’ pilot union, the Allied Pilots Association, insists he would never board a plane if it was not safe.

But he says he can no longer take the quality of the aircraft he flies for granted.

“I’m in a position to never have to fly in a Boeing airplane,” he says.

“Because I do not trust that they followed the procedures that have kept me safe on Boeing airplanes for more than three decades before.”

Executives at the aerospace giant’s shiny new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, could be forgiven for feeling like they’re under siege.

It seems like every day brings more bad headlines for the company, which is coming under pressure from regulators and airlines and its reputation has been significantly damaged.

A preliminary report by the US National Transportation Safety Board concluded that four bolts designed to securely attach the doors to the aircraft were not fitted.

Boeing is reportedly facing a criminal investigation into the incident as well as legal action from passengers on board the plane.

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Captain Dennis Tajer says he is “in a state of alert like I’ve never been in a Boeing airplane.”

Although no one was seriously injured, the case had a widespread impact. It shone a harsh light on the aerospace giant’s corporate culture and attitude towards safety.

Five years ago Boeing faced one of the biggest scandals in its history when two new 737 Max planes were lost in almost identical crashes, killing 346 people.

The cause was faulty flight control software, the details of which were alleged to have been deliberately hidden from regulators.

It reaffirmed its commitment to security, and in early 2020 its newly appointed chief executive Dave Calhoun promised that it “can do better. Much better.”

Yet the investigation following the incident in January this year has raised questions about that commitment.

Addressing those concerns, Chief Executive Dave Calhoun said in January 2023: “We will move slow, we will not rush the system and we will take our time to get it right.”

Earlier this month the US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, said a six-week audit of the 737 MAX production process at Boeing and its supplier Spirit AeroSystems found “numerous instances where the companies failed to follow manufacturing quality control requirements”.

The findings came shortly after another report by an expert panel on Boeing’s safety culture, which found a “disconnection” between senior management and regular employees, as well as indications that employees were hesitant to report problems for fear of retaliation. Were staying.

Adam Dixon, a former senior Boeing manager who once worked on the 737 Max program, agrees that there is a gulf between executives and workers at the factory.

“The culture at Boeing for more than a decade has been toxic to trust,” he says.

He claims, “You can add security steps, you can add processes. But the fundamental issue of mistrust makes those changes almost ineffective.”

Meanwhile, further evidence of how production problems can jeopardize safety emerged this week.

The FAA warned that improperly installed wiring bundles on 737 Max planes could be damaged, causing the wing controls to deploy unexpectedly and the plane to begin rolling.

It says that if not addressed, it could “could lead to loss of control of the airplane.” As a result, hundreds of aircraft already in service would have to be inspected.

Based on the FAA audit, Boeing said it was “continuing to implement immediate changes and develop a comprehensive action plan to strengthen safety and quality, and restore the trust of our customers and their passengers.”

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A recent report found “disengagement” between Boeing’s senior management and regular employees

But concerns about Boeing’s production standards are not new.

A quality manager for the 787 Dreamliner program, he claimed that the rush to build the aircraft as quickly as possible to maximize profits had led to unsafe practices.

Among several allegations, he told the BBC that in some cases workers under duress had deliberately installed substandard parts into planes on the production line.

Boeing denied his claims. But his untimely death, which occurred amid legal hearings in a lawsuit against the company, has put new focus on him.

The aerospace giant’s woes are now causing problems for airlines.

Ryanair has warned that delays to the delivery of new planes will push up prices for travelers to Europe this summer. US carrier Southwest is planning to cut its capacity this year because it is unable to get the planes it needs.

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WATCH: ‘Trip from Hell’: On flight during mid-air explosion

Some carriers may try to obtain Airbus models to replace the lost Boeings. But wholesale transfer of orders from an American manufacturer to a European one is absolutely impractical.

Both have very full order books. Airbus has a backlog of more than 8,000 planes and Boeing has a backlog of more than 6,000 planes.

Airlines are already having to wait longer than expected for new planes. Airbus has had its own supply chain problems, causing delivery delays.

There is a possible third player. Chinese manufacturer Comac has developed the C919, a plane designed to compete with the 737 Max and A320 neo.

But that program is still in its infancy. By 2028 it will produce only 150 aircraft per year.

In other words, the market needs Boeing to get healthy and overcome its current problems quickly. So can this happen?

According to Ed Pearson, executive director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety, the issues involved are complex, but solvable.

A former Boeing whistleblower himself, he has spent years lobbying regulators to take a tougher stance on the company.

“Boeing, their suppliers, airlines and government agencies are capable of overcoming these challenges, but the first step in fixing these problems is to be honest,” he says.

“They have to admit that these problems exist and stop trying to twist the truth. The more they twist, the longer it will take to solve the problems and the greater the risk.”

Boeing says that over the past several years, it has “never hesitated to slow production, halt production or halt deliveries to take the time necessary to get things right.”

It said it has launched a “Speak Up” program that encourages employees to raise issues that need to be addressed.

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