The latest crop of
emails is a torment to the company in its struggle to get the 737 MAX into the air, but a secret that should not be a secret is that all of corporate America, not just Boeing, lives these days by employing creative, freethinking people who spout off acerbically, critically and colorfully in electronic messages.
Think of the
emails leaked by presumed North Korean hackers. My own corporate overlords in the media business have lived in this world longer than most. When a
executive was hired to cut costs at the Los Angeles Times in 1995, the newsroom immediately dubbed him the “cereal killer.” The executive was philosophical. After all, his new company employed too many sardonic, highly verbal people to expect anything else.
In the 1930s, big business may have been staffed by dutiful cogs who were valued mainly for their ability to perform routinized functions. That’s not the world anymore.
Still, take with a grain of salt some of the media reporting. A Boeing email does not mock Federal Aviation Administration inspectors as “dogs watching TV.” Left out of many press accounts are the words “and me too’”—i.e., the email author was criticizing not the FAA but the impenetrability of a Boeing technical presentation.
Many of the released emails concern not the plane itself but the debugging of its training simulators. There’s talk about proofing the operations manual. A late-night text exchange between two company pilots (an irreverent breed) includes a much-quoted snark about colleagues being monkeys and clowns, but the exchange is so desultory, convoluted and jokey that it’s foolish to make anything out of it.
Nor is it right to say Boeing’s chief pilot pooh-poohed pilot training in emails to an Indonesian airline and its regulator. The purpose of the exercises he was proposing is to alert pilots to the differences between the 737NG and the MAX, not to compensate for inadequate training generally. The Boeing pilot is seen pointedly but politely suggesting that the carrier (which happens to be Lion Air, later to be involved in a MAX crash) require its pilots to have more NG hours before switching to the MAX.
Press accounts equate more training with better safety, but that gets the design issue wrong. The need for more training equates with less safety, and for an obvious reason: Introducing more complexity introduces more risk, which then must be ameliorated with more training.
Boeing’s fatal mistake wasn’t its desire to maintain commonality between the MAX and earlier 737s. Its giant blunder lay in a particular implementation of its faulty MCAS cockpit software, which was meant to serve the goal of simplicity but is implicated in two crashes of the now-grounded MAX.
The email furor not only sheds no light here. It gets matters exactly backward. If the hypercritical people seen in these messages had known about MCAS’s design flaws, it never would have gotten through. Where are the emails referring to the last-minute changes that disastrously increased its scope of action, that allowed it to intervene during low-speed maneuvers right after takeoff, that made it repeatedly triggerable by a single, fallible data input?
These changes happened in 2016. The only emails related to MCAS here date from 2013, when the FAA was being sold on the idea that an earlier, far more benign version of the software should be seen as a modest tweak to an existing flight system.
The emails do teach us something—that the integration of hundreds of systems, thousands of parts and millions of lines of computer code into a package of functions that will perform within an envelope of expectations 99.999% of the time is a fraught, stressful and necessarily inspired activity enlisting the efforts of dozens of passionate, dedicated people.
The resulting machines are truly daunting agglomerations of the complex and the idiot-proof, yet somehow passengers can get on an
or Boeing product anywhere in the world and expect to arrive at their destination with less risk of fatal mishap than they might encounter in driving to the post office.
The dumbest of the dumb are those who rant about corporate greed when a plane crashes yet must think corporate greed is in abeyance for the 10 million that land safely. Investigators will eventually get to the bottom of the MAX case. In all likelihood, they won’t find some systematic desire on Boeing’s part to live dangerously to save a few bucks on training and flight equipment. I’ve drawn a parallel to GM’s Chevy Cobalt scandal of 2014, involving a spate of crashes in which air bags inexplicably failed to deploy.
In that case, it turned out a single record-keeping violation by a single misguided engineer foiled GM’s otherwise highly reliable system for identifying and fixing safety defects in its cars. Here’s guessing that a roughly similar miscue will explain why Boeing’s acid-tongue internal kibitzers were not able to identify MCAS’s flaws before it was installed in a plane sold to a customer.
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