Fickling: Boeing’s 737 Max defence is a textbook mess

David Fickling

For decades, business schools have taught Johnson & Johnson’s handling of its 1982 Tylenol scandal as a textbook example of good crisis management.

In the future, we can expect Boeing Co.’s treatment of its two 737 Max crashes to join the syllabus – as an example of what not to do.

Engineers at the planemaker discovered problems with the aircraft’s angle-of-attack sensors within months of the model’s first delivery, but did not share its findings with airlines, regulators or even senior management until much later, the company said Sunday.

That we are still getting incomplete details of the situation – almost two years after the problems were first found, and six months after the Lion Air crash last October that brought it to wider attention – is an almost perfect inversion of the Tylenol lesson.

When Johnson & Johnson found someone was lacing the pain-relief medicine with cyanide, it removed the product from shelves and followed a policy of maximum transparency to reassure customers. As a result, it remained ahead of the developing story and, eventually, regained their trust.

Boeing’s response has been starkly different. For more than a month, reporters and experts have been asking questions about the angle-of-attack sensors and their relationship with Boeing’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (an automated feature designed to prevent the plane from stalling). Many stories have pointed out how customers that paid for additional functions got a warning when data from the 737 Max’s two such sensors disagreed – with the implication that essential safety features were available only to those who paid extra.

Boeing’s response to this line of inquiry has been that the absence of the disagree alert on basic-model planes was not the result of company policy but an accident, and that once discovered it was deemed acceptably low-risk to wait until a software update to fix the problem. In other words, it did not leave the alert disconnected out of venality, but out of incompetence.

Let’s just go through the litany of errors here. Boeing introduced a new automated feature, MCAS, that depended on input from angle-of-attack sensors. It failed to inform pilots properly about the new feature, despite the clear ways in which it changed the plane’s aerodynamics and handling. On top of that, the company accidentally removed functionality that had previously alerted pilots to faults in the sensors controlling MCAS. Through ignorance of this second problem, it again failed to inform pilots of the way their cockpit set-up had changed.

It’s a mess, and made worse by the fact that Boeing’s prevarication looks like denial. With 346 people dead, the company’s main defence boils down to quibbling about the meaning of the term “safety feature”. (In Boeing’s view, because angle-of-attack data don’t form a central part of a pilot’s classic flight display, an alert about faulty readings can’t be considered a safety feature.)

Here’s an alternative reading: Whether you call them safety features or not, indicators telling pilots that something unexpected is happening to the aircraft can make the difference between life and death.

Thanks to innovations by aerospace manufacturers, including Boeing itself, aircraft are extraordinarily safe these days. They lose control in flight only in extremely unusual and unpredictable circumstances. As a result, pilots are often more like investigators than drivers – most needed when something goes wrong. When that happens, they may have just seconds to solve the problem, so need as much information as possible at their fingertips.

When Air France Flight 447 crashed off the coast of Brazil in 2009 killing 228, the initial problem was caused by a strikingly similar set of events – conflicting airspeed readings that caused the autopilot to disconnect in a way that appears to have left the crew, flying in darkness, unable to discern what was going wrong. Too much information risks overwhelming pilots in a tense situation; depriving them of information can be equally dangerous.

Why is Boeing behaving so differently to Johnson & Johnson? One advantage that the drug company had is that the Tylenol poisonings were not its fault, so it had little to lose from being as open as possible. In the case of the Boeing 737 Max, as we are gradually learning, it’s going to be hard to paint the company’s actions in such blameless tones.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. © 2019, Bloomberg Opinion.

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