Boeing's 737 Max crisis: A turbulent year leads industry to ask tough questions
US plane maker faced intense scrutiny and series of setbacks following two deadly crashes of its best-selling jets
Boeing's ongoing 737 Max woes marked a tumultuous year that forced the aviation industry to grapple with big questions on whether the plane maker will overcome the Max debacle, if travellers will be too scared to fly on the plane, rethinking jet certification procedures and scrutinising regulators' accountability.
The Chicago-based jet manufacturer capped 2019 by ousting its chief executive Dennis Muilenburg and freezing production of the Max as the crisis drags into 2020. This leaves incoming boss David Calhoun the task of picking up the pieces to restore the grounded jet, rebuild relations with key stakeholders and repair the company's damaged reputation — no mean feat.
"Boeing's relations with the outside world, particularly with regulators and the government, appeared to be spiralling downward," Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst with Teal Group, said. "David Calhoun will be a better communicator, and should present a better outside image for Boeing [to] Congress, regulators, suppliers and customers. This should help stabilise the company's situation."
The world's biggest aerospace company has faced a grim year marked by the worst crisis in its 103-year history. The 737 Max, its best-selling industry workhorse, was grounded for nine months after two fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia within the span of five months claimed 346 lives. The disasters and their aftermath rocked the aviation industry, leading to multiple regulatory and criminal investigations. It also hurt airlines and suppliers, and dented travellers' confidence in the plane.
Boeing opened its doors to the press in October, before the Dubai Airshow, granting journalists access to its senior executives and its 737 factory in Renton, Washington, near Seattle.
On October 7, journalists from various media outlets, including The National, visited the 737 Max assembly line as grey clouds hung low on the factory.
Company executives struck a humble and apologetic tone but repeated that the troubled plane would be approved for commercial flights in the final quarter of 2019.
That timeline proved a moving target with multiple delays: in December, the Federal Aviation Administration said the plane would not be cleared to fly before 2020. The delay forced Boeing to temporarily shut down production of the narrowbody jet starting in January, its biggest assembly-line halt in more than 20 years, to ease the cash burn. The worldwide grounding since March has already cost Boeing more than $9 billion (Dh33bn).
For the plane to return to commercial service in the US, the FAA must approve Boeing's software changes and pilot training scheme. In addition, regulators across the globe must also sign off on the plane's return to their parts of the world. Regulators in China, Europe and the UAE have said they would conduct their own safety checks on the plane before issuing their own approvals.
The lack of unanimity among international regulators on the measures and timeline on approving the 737 Max for flight has raised concerns about disrupting certification of future aircraft programmes. The FAA was traditionally the main lead on certifying Boeing aircraft, with other global regulators following suit, but that was called into question amid concerns the agency was too close to the manufacturer.
The head of the world's main airline lobby group has repeatedly called for unanimity among the regulators on the Max's return.
Alexandre de Juniac, director-general of the International Air Transport Association, warned that a fragmented approach by the regulators may lead to "mistrust" in the existing jet certification process.
Mr De Juniac expressed concerns over continued delays to the comeback of Boeing's 737 Max.
“It’s delayed by one month every month,” he said at Iata's annual media gathering in Geneva this month.
Commenting on whether the Max issue could complicate certification of future jet programmes, Gilberto López Meyer, Iata's senior vice-president of safety and flight operations, said: "Definitely, this is going to produce a complete review of the whole system. We believe the system works well but, as in anything in life, it can be improved," he told reporters in Geneva.
On October 8, journalists were taken on a tour of Boeing's Safety Promotion Centre, an area where the plane maker emphasises safety practices throughout the company.
In the entrance stood a sombre memorial to the two fatal crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia. "A moment of reflection: Remembering those whose lives were lost in flight," it read, along with the date and timing of both disasters.
The chilling monument is a concrete reminder of the heavy responsibility of ensuring that such tragedies do not happen again.
Updated: December 27, 2019 12:06 PM