Boeing explosion: tech hubris strikes again

When United Airlines flight 328 bound for Honolulu on 20 February shook violently, shed parts of its engine, lost altitude and began plummeting towards the Denver suburbs, the 231 passengers on board understandably feared for their lives. Nothing could have prepared them for this near-death encounter.

Or could it?

In December 2020, a Japan Airlines 777 flight with the same Pratt And Whitney 4000 model engine had to return to Naha Airport shortly after take-off. In 2018, another United Airlines 777 suffered serious damage when an engine exploded just before landing in Hawaii.

These near-catastrophes are chillingly similar to the two fatal 737 Max crashes - Indonesia’s Lion Air in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines’ crash in March 2019 - which killed 346 people between them. Even after these tragedies, Boeing’s chief executive Dennis Muilenberg insisted that a bit of extra pilot training would solve the problem. What he failed to tell the US Congress, or the Federal Air Authority, was how two pilots had spotted problems on the 737 Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) in 2016. One wrote that the system was ‘running rampant’.

Between 2016 and 2018, Boeing’s share price tripled. The company was the largest exporter in the United States and had a five-year backlog of orders. Admitting to the aviation world that a critical piece of technology was potentially faulty could imperil this soaring valuation and hugely lucrative market. But ignoring the facts proved devastating to Boeing.

Countdown to calamity

In the 2010s, Boeing sought to evolve from a dominant player in aerospace to a diversified tech giant. Born and headquartered in Seattle, like Microsoft, it began to look enviously at its neighbouring tech titans in California.

In October 2018, less than two weeks before the Lion Air crash, Boeing launched a new division: Disruptive Computing and Networks, based in Southern California. It aimed to deploy ‘quantum communications and computing, neuromorphic processing and advanced sensing’ to increase shareholder returns and ‘define the future of urban, regional and global mobility,’ as the company put it. “I think we’re about to enter another golden age of aerospace,” said CTO Greg Hyslop.

Boeing adopted the buzzwords of the tech industry. It used blue sky thinking, researched robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, played a role in the US Space Program and stressed the importance of agility, speed and responsiveness. In a 2016 shake-up, CEO Muilenberg introduced Boeing Global Services, bringing defense, space and commercial work under one roof, to cut costs and improve delivery speed. One of its major customers, Aengus Kelly of Aercap, spoke approvingly of Boeing’s approach: “No more committee decision-making,” he noted. “Boeing is now nimble, aggressive, out there all the time.”

Even though Boeing still dealt with the physical realities of metal planes travelling at high altitude carrying millions of human beings, it fancied itself as a digital disruptor, complying with Mark Zuckerberg’s dictum: ‘move fast and break things’.

Clearing up the mess

Once Boeing’s planes broke twice in succession, it was forced to slow down. First the company sacked its Commercial Airplanes CEO Kevin McAllister. Then Muilenberg himself received the chop, having repeatedly missed self-imposed deadlines to re-launch the 737 Max and angered airlines, the US government and regulators. He now works for a California-based company designing driver-less tractors.

New CEO Dave Calhoun is an accountant by profession, aiming to stabilise Boeing after the turbulence of astronautics engineer Muilenberg’s tenure. Beneath him are two Boeing veterans who were full-throated disciples of the tech vision. Stanley Deal spearheaded the economization and integration drive: “Processes are speeding up and bureaucracy is going down,” he said in 2019, while former Chief Information Officer Ted Colbert was behind the Digital Flight Deck: “A great example of how we’re bringing data into every part of our decision-making process to increase productivity and value,” he said. “Once data analytics have been properly implemented, the achievable savings can run to hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The MCAS technology that went so catastrophically wrong was meant to save money. Whereas older long-haul aircraft had four engines, Boeing discovered that it could economize on fuel by having two, as long as it used MCAS technology to counter a two-engined plane’s tendency to pitch up.   

The trouble was that MCAS is complex and required additional pilot training. Boeing didn’t want to raise any alarms about the safety of MCAS, while the airlines didn’t want to pay for extra pilot training. Between them, the profit motive and an undue reliance on the wonders of digital technology conspired to kill hundreds of people.

“I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!” tweeted disgraced former president Trump in 2019. He was right, though his regime of corporate deregulation and abolition of safety standards lay in the background.

As Boeing comes to terms with its latest malfunction, grateful that it has – so far – escaped any loss of life, the company needs to decide whether it is a tech company that happens to make planes, a digital disruptor playing in the same league and by the same rules as Amazon and Tesla, or a transport manufacturer whose first duty is to passenger safety.

David Nicholson runs – a team of writers producing content for publishers and companies – and is ex-editor of aerospace magazine MRO [Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul]. Contact, tel: +44 7802 834477