At a simple level, this is the story.
Boeing have had to ground their new Air Max and sack their CEO Dennis Muilenburg. What has happened?
Two fatal crashes involving the plane within five months of each other which killed a combined 346 people, have led to questions about the plane’s design and features (meant to make it easier for pilots to fly). The crashes have also called attention to training standards, regulatory oversight and pilot experience. Since the second crash in March, the plane has been grounded around the world as Boeing work to fix what appears to be a fundamental design flaw.
Boeing’s new plane was developed as an evolution of previous models (rather than something radically new), leading the company to believe that the pilots only needed an update and not a whole new training programme. But it turned out that the new plane did behave differently in some circumstances and Boeing tried to fix this with technology.
Boeing’s story is a highly technical one about product development and innovation gone wrong. It is also a moral one about the pursuit of efficiency and the failure to recognise and call out a design flaw that needed to be fixed in a transparent way. Instead, the problem was downplayed to being a technical glitch that could be fixed with software. As so often, it was not the problem that caused the crisis but the cover up. The incentives to downplay the problem are high. Boeing stood to lose profits and market share – and that is what CEOs are judged on. You can see why the CEO succumbed to the temptation to cover up a problem that was most likely to lead to more crashes.
####Boeing’s new plane was developed as an evolution of previous models (rather than something radically new), leading the company to believe that the pilots only needed an update and not a whole new training programme.
In this he was supported by the US Federal Aviation Authority (the regulator). After the first crash, an internal FAA analysis showed a high likelihood of future crashes, as many as 15 over the 30 to 40 year life of the jet. However, the FAA allowed the plane to keep flying. So, it appears that the FAA put the interests of a great American company ahead of those of citizens around the world.
Boeing (and the FAA) have violated a commonly understood agreement that in air travel, safety comes first – and that whatever the rivalries are for market share or between nations, all in the industry have a responsibility to maintain confidence in safety or else everyone’s business will suffer.
We see this manifested in the importance of the black boxes, which keep a record of what happened in fallen planes. These boxes are, in a sense, common property and their findings should be shared for the greater good, in order to learn from mistakes, share knowledge throughout the industry and achieve continuous improvement in standards. In a way it is a modern form of ‘honourable behaviour’ that is accorded to all who travel. Like the law of the sea that says that no vessel should ignore a distress message from another vessel and make a detour to pick up survivors – however inconvenient.
There is something particularly bad about putting commercial profits above the needs of travellers. This goes deep into culture and our human fears. At home, we feel safe surrounded by our families, but when we travel we are vulnerable and rely on the kindness of strangers. This is encoded in many cultures and religions, which tell us instructive stories about why we must offer food and protection to travellers.
When you get into a Boeing Air Max you trust that the moral responsibility of the CEO (and the domestic regulatory authorities) outweighs commercial concerns. Any student of capitalism can tell you that profits are often put before people. But I think we all had rather hoped that this was not true of airlines, which can, with appalling suddenness, kill individuals and devastate the lives of their families and friends.
Julian Saunders was CEO, Red Cell (a WPP creative agency) and Head of Strategy, McCann-Erickson. firstname.lastname@example.org