Boeing knew it had a problem on its hands in late 2018 when a 737 Max crashed, killing 189 people. Then, when that first crash was still in the news cycle, came another 737 Max crash in early 2019, bringing the death toll up to 346.
Travelers panicked. When making travel arrangements, many began asking “Which plane will I be on?” After the second crash, the 737 Max was officially grounded. Now, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is reportedly investigating “production issues” at Boeing’s Max factory.
Media reports suggest there could be some serious teeth to these investigations, quoting a former factory manager who claims to have warned the company of potential safety and quality risks associated with worker fatigue. In his comments, the former manager, Ed Pierson, described the culture in the factory as “chaotic and alarming.” Speaking to U.S. lawmakers during the investigation, Pierson said, “It is alarming that these sensors failed on multiple flights mere months after the airplanes were manufactured in a factory experiencing frequent wiring problems and functional test issues … I witnessed a factory in chaos.”
Now, it’s being reported that the FAA is planning to keep the 737 Max on the tarmac until at least the end of 2019, perhaps longer. Boeing’s initial response is that continued delays in allowing the 737 Max to fly would create global supply chain issues. The company is hoping this narrative gives them leverage they need to get their planes in the air faster. Meanwhile, at least one lawmaker said there was blame to go around. Representative Peter DeFazio said, “Despite its own calculations, the FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public …”
This kind of thinking in the United States Congress could mean that regulators are going to be harder on Boeing in order to save some face in the court of public opinion. This will make the same operation doubly difficult for Boeing, which hasn’t yet been able to adequately explain its plans for how to move forward to an increasingly nervous public. Boeing is already falling behind on its opportunity to regain lost public trust, and now the clock is ticking.
If, on one hand, the FAA clears the 737 Max for flight in January or February, U.S. airlines could take as much as an additional month to get those aircraft back in rotation. Boeing needs to make the most of that time, committing to efforts to rebuild consumer trust, as well as customer trust abroad.
On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Boeing is now considering either cutting back production of the 737 Max or suspending it entirely. Either way, with Airbus continuing to make leaps on the international market, Boeing can ill afford doubts among either the consumer public or the consumer market, much less both.