The outcry surrounding the twin Boeing 737 Max tragedies in the last few months represents something totally new and different for global aviation. Following crashes in Asia and Africa, the global scope of the reaction to the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines incidents shows business as usual won’t cut it anymore for airlines and aircraft manufacturers.
Airlines — and the countries over which these airlines were flying — moved with unprecedented speed to remove all variations of 737 Max from service, ignoring traditional industry standards that call for a thorough investigation of flight data before making a decision to ground a particular model of aircraft.
Back in the fall of 2017, we at Skift coined a term, permanxiety, which we defined as a near-constant state of anxiety that exists around the world. These worries include just about, well, everything: terrorism, security, neo-isolationism, racial tension, Trumpism, technology’s adverse effects, the widening economic gap, culture wars, climate change, and other geopolitical and local issues.
We further explored how travel has become the global crucible for these permanxieties, exacerbated by hyper-connected citizens using social platforms.
In an era of dominance by Facebook, Twitter, and others, an airplane crash represents a perfect storm for travelers by stoking the imagination and feeding users a constant stream of updates on the bad news. Clickbait-meets-anxieties is perfect fodder for media to feed into for days and months. Two crashes of the same aircraft model, then, is a story that airlines and aviation manufacturers simply can’t ignore until it goes away.
The Boeing Company, now flush with $101 billion in annual revenue, has not done enough to reassure global travelers that stepping foot on one of its aircraft is completely safe. All told, 371 planes have been grounded pending an investigation by French aviation authorities and a promised software fix from Boeing.
If you want to know why such an egregious lapse in judgment happened, just follow the money.
Big Business and Greed
Airlines, ultimately, serve the traveling public while Boeing serves its aviation industry partners. This is an important distinction point: the traveling public has little sense of the planes and the differences between them. A Skift survey showed that about 70 percent of flyers don’t care — or even know — the aircraft type when booking a flight, or even when flying.
Since Boeing has little incentive to reach the traveling public beyond the occasional anniversary effort, it is not a surprise that it has worked to develop a software fix and better educate pilots rather than make a meaningful overture to the traveling public. The company needs airlines to stay committed to their orders, and to reassure customers that their products are safe.
It’s in the interest of both the wider aviation industry and regulators alike to create a quick fix, but is it really in the best interest of global passengers for aviation at large to continue with the status quo?
Furthermore, why would international air carriers trust the Federal Aviation Administration as an unbiased arbiter when its oversight has come into question?
While investigators are still examining the exact cause of the most recent crash, one thing is certain: both Boeing and the FAA have to answer to the public for how we got here. And the public, in this case, doesn’t just mean the American public, but the world, which is the reality in this globalized era.
Although statistics bear out that driving is more dangerous than flying by a factor of thousands, people feel safer at the wheel of their car than in their seat on a plane piloted by pilots with tens of thousands of hours of flight time. Hurtling through the sky in a metal tube with wings, after having spent hours in a soulless cauldron of a militarized modern airport, is very different than driving by any measure.
Reports contend that reduced funding for the FAA led to Boeing self-certifying parts of its own aircraft, cutting corners on the systems related to preventing the Boeing 737 Max series from entering a potentially deadly stall.
The international aviation duopoly of Boeing and Airbus opted to fit their bestselling narrowbody aircraft with new engines, rather than creating altogether new aerodynamic designs that could handle the powerful modern engines. At the same time, only limited training was mandated for pilots of the new aircraft.
Meanwhile, few in media or elsewhere are focused on the severe shortage of pilots happening around the world, the barely-above subsistence wage of many pilots, and the constant cost-cutting from the airlines themselves that has eaten into any training budgets for these already demotivated pilots. Airlines should get a big part of that blame, for sure.
As for Boeing, since the company lifer Dennis Muilenburg took charge in 2015, the company has focused more on profitability and providing solid returns to shareholders than innovating in technology or design. Selling safety as an extra to airlines already trying to pinch pennies is perfectly emblematic of the company’s strategy during his tenure. The sad irony of Boeing learning from its airline clients the need to charge extra fees for any “upgrades” shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
Muilenburg should step down immediately. Boeing’s influence, of course, extends to Capitol Hill as well; the company spent $15.1 million on lobbying in 2018, more than Comcast, Amazon, and Northop Grumman. You could see Boeing’s defiance on display during a Congressional hearing on the incidents this week. The company’s board of directors should be shaken up as well, to ensure new leaders are guiding the course of the company.
These are no-brainers on winning back trust.
Boeing can pull from the harsh lessons learned by U.S. airlines after their various incidents became social media firestorms over the last few years. It must own up to its mistakes in a clear and transparent way.
The status quo doesn’t fly anymore when every company is a consumer company, and 737 Max aircraft should remain grounded until an honest assessment of its defects is released to the public whose lives have been endangered by corporate greed and regulatory failure.