The regulatory order allowing the 737 Max jet to fly again also clears Boeing to start repairing the damage from the worst disaster in company history.
Aviation ities grounded Boeing's best-selling jet 20 months ago after two fatal crashes that killed 346 people in late 2018 and early 2019. Investigators blamed the crashes on a malfunctioning flight control system that forced both planes into sudden nosedives that pilots couldn't correct. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rescinded the grounding order Nov. 18 after approving Boeing's fixes to the system and other modifications.
The catastrophes left Boeing with a debt-heavy balance sheet, depleted market share and a shattered reputation. What Boeing may have gained from the searing experience is insight into what went wrong with the 737 Max and how to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. In a memo to employees on Nov. 18, CEO David Calhoun vowed Boeing will honor the victims "by holding close to the hard lessons learned from this chapter in our history."
But what are those lessons, exactly? Calhoun didn't say, and a Boeing spokesman declined to elaborate on the CEO's remarks.
Unarticulated lessons are hard to follow. So here's a list of things Boeing—and other companies—can learn from its mistakes.
Assumptions kill. A trail of flawed assumptions led to the fatal accidents. Assuming it could change critical flight controls without creating unacceptable risk, Boeing added new anti-stall software that relied on a single sensor to detect a stall. That increased the risk of erroneous activation that would repeatedly push the plane's nose down. Boeing compounded that risk with another assumption: that pilots—who weren't trained on the new system or even told about it—would discern the cause and take appropriate corrective action within four seconds. "There was a great deal of complacency in that," says industry analyst Scott Hamilton of Leeham & Co., noting that famed aviator Chesley Sullenberger told congressional investigators Boeing ignored the "startle factor" that delays a pilot's response to unfamiliar in-flight problems.
Dissent helps. A culture of conformity blinded Boeing. Internal company emails revealed serious doubts about the 737 Max among lower-level technical workers. Yet none believed their concerns would get a fair hearing from bosses focused on bringing the plane to market quickly. Analyst Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group says Boeing might have avoided disaster if it had "empowered the engineers" to challenge the company's assumptions. Boeing recently took steps in that direction by giving its engineering group a direct reporting pipeline to the CEO and forming an independent safety committee.
Let regulators regulate. Over the years, an underfunded FAA has ceded more and more ity to Boeing, allowing the company to steer critical approval processes. This glaring conflict of interest leaves safety decisions to people whose paychecks come from a company seeking quick regulatory approvals. Unbiased regulatory scrutiny might have saved lives by highlighting risks in the new flight control software and undercutting Boeing's insistence that pilots wouldn't need simulator training on the Max.
Transparency fosters trust. Determined to spare its airline customers the costs of simulator training, Boeing underplayed aspects of the new flight control system in communications with the FAA. Boeing even left the new system out of pilot manuals, keeping aviators in the dark. After the accidents, Boeing stonewalled, deflected and attempted to cast blame on pilots of the doomed jets. More transparency on the front end might have prevented calamity. More transparency afterward would have reduced damage to Boeing's credibility, which will take years to overcome.
Passengers matter more than shareholders. This final lesson is most important. Hundreds died in accidents that might not have happened if Boeing hadn't pursued an aggressive 737 Max timetable that reflected corporate financial goals. Nobody dies when Boeing misses a quarterly earnings target.
I'm not suggesting Boeing intentionally subordinated safety to profits. But a focus on maximizing short-term shareholder returns inevitably creates cultural pressures that can compromise safety. A more cautious approach to the 737 Max—fully briefing regulators on the flight control system's features and risks, recognizing that pilots might not react instantaneously and properly to malfunctioning controls, recommending simulator training—would have enhanced safety.
Yes, such an approach likely would have cost Boeing sales and profits. But along with incalculable human losses, Boeing's chosen approach caused tens of billions in financial losses. If the company had pursued its financial goals less aggressively, 346 passengers might well be alive, and Boeing shareholders might well be richer.