There were many mistakes made in designing the Boeing 737 MAX. A single point of failure – a faulty angle of attack sensor – was able to trigger a system over and over that caused MAX aircraft to pitch nose down to prevent stalls. There were two sensors on the aircraft and the system relied on one at a time, and a disagree alert between the two was an optional feature.
While straightforward to disengage, it wasn’t clear to all pilots around the world flying the plane what was happening. And when a number of other things went wrong, such as in the case of Lion Air where it appears a faulty part was installed, an issue was identified, and not reported the results were tragic.
The MCAS system itself, the subject now of much scrutiny, was part of Boeing’s efforts to make flying the 737 MAX feel just like prior generations of the aircraft which, in turn, meant lower costs for certification and training and greater speed to market for the aircraft since Boeing was competing aggressively against the Airbus A320neo series which was ahead in the pipeline. That much we know, and also the changes that have been made to correct for these tragic mistakes.
Now a series of embarrassing emails have come out, following embarrassing text messages which were revealed in the fall.
“I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year,” one of the employees said in messages from 2018, apparently in reference to interactions with the Federal Aviation Administration.
…“Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t,” one employee said to a colleague in another exchange from 2018, before the first crash. “No,” the colleague responded.
In another set of messages, employees questioned the design of the Max and even denigrated their own colleagues. “This airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys,” an employee wrote in an exchange from 2017.
…In an exchange from 2015, a Boeing employee said that a presentation the company gave to the F.A.A. was so complicated that, for the agency officials and even himself, “it was like dogs watching TV.”
The full trove of emails is online here.
Some perspective is needed here, though. People say things, they joke, they boast and they inflate their own self-importance. Plenty of people have taken divergent views of the MAX aircraft, as my own comments section shows, and it’s not surprising to see that come out at various points especially early in the process even at Boeing. It’s not clear that, knowing what they know now, those same employees would say the same things.
Companies are frequently undone by emails. DNC emails certainly didn’t help Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Presidential election. Emails hurt Microsoft when the government prosecuted an anti-trust case against it for monopolizing the web browser market (gosh if everyone knew then what we know now). It amazes me that companies store past non-work related emails, investing in the storage space and potential systems inefficiency, and incurring costs to keep documents that aren’t of any benefit going forward.
Once disclosed, the boasts and informality, and minority opinions of sometimes even poorly-informed employees repeating rumor and innuendo comes back to haunt a company, and is a useful weapon for anyone seeking to rip those quotes out of context.
It’s a bad story for Boeing but these emails do not change my view that the 737 MAX is ready to return to service and will be the most highly vetted aircraft in history once it does.