March 19, 2024

Things That Go ‘Boeing’ in the Night

With numerous “incidents” in recent weeks, many are wondering what’s up with the airplane maker.

This hasn’t been the greatest of years for Boeing, which was once far and away the world’s greatest commercial air transport manufacturer. A little under three years since the end of the last planet-wide groundings of various Boeing fleets following the loss of two fully loaded aircraft and 346 lives, 2024 nonetheless promises not to be the year Boeing regains the ground it lost to its only global competitor, Airbus.

A recap of this year’s first-quarter events for Boeing is instructive. Boeing’s new year started off with the now-infamous January 5 “plug” blowout in a 737 MAX 9 on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. A “plug” is a provision for an emergency exit door on a commercial aircraft, but such a provision is not required for carriers whose maximum passenger capacity falls below a certain limit, as in the case of the Alaska Airlines flight. For such lower-capacity aircraft, the would-be exit door is sealed off (this is the “plug”), and the cabin’s interior would indicate no exit at the plug’s location. Well, that is, until it would — as in the case of Alaska’s incident, which very likely put dark spots on at least a few passengers’ seats nearest that blowout. No one died, thankfully.

Then again, “No One Died” is probably not the metric topping most airlines’ passenger satisfaction surveys, either.

A string of mishaps followed suit. First, there was the March 4 “bubble-wrap” incident. A Boeing 737 engine burst into flames shortly after takeoff from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Initial findings indicated that bubble wrap had been sucked into one of the plane’s two engines as the aircraft taxied to the departure runway. The aircraft, loaded with 167 passengers and bound for Fort Myers, Florida, returned to the airport uneventfully. This incident was followed very shortly by a main landing gear tire falling off a United Airlines 777 jet shortly after takeoff on March 7. The widebody jet had been bound for Osaka, Japan, but was forced to return to its departure base, San Francisco International Airport. The very next day, March 8, a 737 MAX 8 flying to Houston-Intercontinental from Memphis departed the end of the landing runway after being unable to turn onto a taxiway at the end of the 10,000-foot runway.

Last week, three back-to-back incidents followed these first three. On March 11, a LATAM 787 originally scheduled from Sydney, Australia, to Santiago, Chile, experienced a “technical event” (in the airline’s words) in which the aircraft abruptly dove, pasting unbuckled passengers onto the cabin’s ceiling at first, then planting them in the aisles and on other passengers after the jet pulled out from its dive. The mishap led to 50 passengers requiring treatment for impact injuries. No doubt many passengers also experienced their own “technical events” — likely bladder-related — as a result of the incident. Then, on March 14, a massive hydraulic leak (clearly visible from the airport tower) from a 777 also departing from Sydney and bound for San Francisco resulted in the aircraft’s return to Sydney. The next day, a 737 flying from San Francisco to Medford, Oregon, lost a large aircraft panel from an area near its main landing gear. The aircraft landed uneventfully in Medford.

We should stress that investigations of most of these incidents are still ongoing, so speculating about a mishap’s cause is premature. Even so, from a public-optics standpoint, this stipulation is largely irrelevant: Public confidence in Boeing has been shattered, and a lot of PR-related cleanup work had better happen pronto, or Boeing is in deeper trouble than anyone may realize.

A few other serious factors also bear PR scrutiny. First is the recent apparent suicide of whistleblower and former Boeing quality control engineer John Barnett, who had worked at Boeing for over three decades and who had provided testimony against Boeing in a lawsuit alleging compromises in safety by Boeing in the manufacturing processes of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft. Barnett was found dead in his truck, the victim of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Barnett’s lawyer expressed extreme skepticism of the authorities’ “suicide” findings but refused to comment further. Wherever the truth lies, here, again, the optics do not look good for Boeing.

Another issue is that the Justice Department just opened a criminal probe into Boeing’s safety practices, based on initial findings from Alaska’s plug blowout and in view of the deferred prosecution deal Boeing had made with federal prosecutors to avoid criminal liability for the crashes killing 346 people, discussed above. The Justice Department is investigating whether Boeing held and is holding its end of that bargain and whether, as a consequence, criminal prosecution against Boeing should be resumed. Did we also mention that the world’s largest air carrier, United Airlines, canceled its orders for the 737 MAX 10 because Boeing could not provide an estimated date for their certification based on the above events? Or that United is now courting Airbus to fill this void?

The get-well point for Boeing is nowhere in sight at the moment, but Boeing had better locate one and do it soon. Notice that we’re not saying that Boeing’s relatively new CEO should be fired; we also aren’t saying he shouldn’t. We are saying: Boeing, get your act together, for your sake and the sake of the country’s air transport system.

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