Those Embarrassing Boeing Emails Don’t Tell Us Anything New (Or Anything At All)

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Everyone is obviously beating up on Boeing for everything associated with the MAX. Not surprising, it’s human nature — and certainly how our media operates. Your perspective on this is helpful.

  2. You have the wrong perspective. Boeing shifted from a safety first avionics culture to a defense culture of cash flows and lobbying post the Douglas management taking over. All the decisions made by Boeing during this period are suspect. I doubt the new CEO gets this. The BOD is clueless of what caused the MAX problems and prior to that the lithium battery issues. You point to specific decisions made instead of the culture that permitted these decisions to be made.

    Having worked with avionics organizations I have often been frustrated by their safety first process oriented style of operating. Boeing is no longer encumbered by that and potentially hidden disasters await.

  3. Another case of, “Say it forget it, write it regret it,” “Would you want this on front page news?” These thoughts are for the very same reasons you mentioned, “…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.” I’m not advocating that anyone should lie, just think about the audience both realised and potential.

    My curiosity leads me further down the rabbit hole to ask, “Is there further blood on Boeing’s hands since the airlines that crashed were not of the caliber of other clients i.e. United, Southwest, or AA?” Were they selective? Did they provide greater information to the “Heavies” that was not supplied to the “Lessers?” Imagine if the first to go down was say RyanAir or United? How much worse would that have looked as opposed to the two that occurred?

    I know full on conspiracy theory, but, companies have been known to do provide greater support to their “Best clients.”

    Just my $0.02

  4. Gary said: “People say things, they joke, they boast and they inflate their own self-importance.” Absolutely. And sometimes they had a fight with their wife or husband and vent and so on and so on. The permutations of why people say things are infinite. Emails taken out of context can often paint an unfairly damming picture. Emails should not be treated as legal documents, but they often are.

  5. I also agree with Marcus, that the safety engineering culture at Boeing has been significantly degraded.

  6. With 346 dead people and two proverbial smoking holes in the ground, Boeing deserves to be beaten up. Boeing’s design and marketing failures (initially refusing to tell airlines MCAS was on the plane and provide training for pilots) and the unconscionable failure to recognize and address these failures after the first crash were merely symptoms of the real failure — an inadequate safety culture. As far as I’ve seen, nothing has been done to address that.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with @john.

    As for the safety of the 737 MAX if and when it returns to service: I suppose that, given the current intense scrutiny, Boeing’s Rube Goldberesque patch-upon-patch approach to remedying the problems might make it safe enough. But let’s be clear that, once such scrutiny fades, Boeing management’s underlying culture of arrogantly cutting corners will most likely resurface. The CEO is gone (with a golden parachute for his efforts), dismissed much more for his poor communications than for his fostering an inadequate safety culture. But otherwise, the same characters are running the show.

  8. What @john said. They need to scrap the whole MAX program. People wont fly the plane and airlines that use it will suffer.

  9. There’s so much wrong at Boeing, much of which most experts attribute to the toxic corporate culture that took root after the 1997 “merger” with McDonnell Douglas that despite nearly an entire day, and repeated efforts to pare down what even for me would be among the longest reader comments I’ve ever written.

    So, instead, I’m going to take time to write, edit and then post something far more organized, coherent and hopefully easier to read than the muddled messes or rants more often seen by me at a later time.

    But, let’s be clear: Boeing has NO ONE but itself for the mess it now finds itself in – that in reality it HAS been in for quite some time, but because it’s stock price kept breaking records and shareholders were kept fat and happy, those problems were overlooked until the two crashes and the harsh media glare that followed began to expose the rot that long preceded those disasters – and I began writing about (elsewhere) in Oct 2017 when the insanity that was Boeing’s epically failed attempt to kill off Bombardier’s C-Series (now, of course, Airbus’s A220) caught my attention as symptomatic of a company in deep trouble and I began posting commentaries and analyses that specifically cited “McBoeing’s” toxic corporate culture as the problem most now also have cited in recent months.

    Until then, happy Friday and have a great weekend!


  10. Thank goodness for competition.

    Airbus planes are much better for passengers anyway: the A320 is much less cramped than the 737, and the A350 is eons better than the cost-cutting narrower and noisier 787, with its ridiculous window dimming controlled by the self-appointed wardens of the air (flight attendants).

  11. Are you &$*%!# kidding me? Can anyone seriously think that Boeing officials did not make deadly mistakes because they placed speed and money ahead of fundamental safety? Would we be so understanding if a drunk driver killed a busload of children? “Hey, he didn’t mean to kill anyone when he got behind the wheel…It’s complicated…” Give me a break !

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