We'd like to see more scrutiny as the impetus to rally around Boeing right now leaves little room for skepticism and improvements.
Boeing Co. and the Federal Aviation Administration this week attempted to wrest back control of the narrative about the grounded 737 Max jet.
As far as the stock is concerned, it was a success: Boeing shares ended up 5 percent on the week as investors took heart from the company’s progress on rolling out an update for anti-stall flight-control software that’s thought to have been a factor in two fatal crashes. As far as rebuilding confidence in the plane and thwarting scrutiny over the cozy relationship between Boeing and the FAA, it fell flat.
Boeing’s proposed update will make it easier for pilots to manually override the so-called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, and the software will now compare readings from two sensors before pushing the plane’s nose down. Boeing will also add more explanation of the system to manuals and offer additional training through tablets.
A Boeing official told the Wall Street Journal that the changes don’t necessarily indicate the original design was inadequate but rather will make the system “more robust.” That is a stunningly tone-deaf statement given the facts: 346 people have died; pilots have complained they weren’t properly informed of the new feature and that it’s impractical to assume routine training would have been sufficient in the chaos; and the reliance on a single sensor seemingly flies in face of industry practice.
A Boeing executive told Bloomberg the upgrade proved more complicated than expected, which is why it hadn’t been rolled out when the Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed this month. That raises more questions about why the company didn’t adopt a more cautious and conciliatory stance earlier. “We didn’t rush it, because rushing is the wrong thing to do in a situation like this,” a Boeing official told the Journal with regard to the software update, seemingly without a hint of irony amid criticism that the MCAS system at its heart was a tool of expediency to avoid a more dramatic redesign of the 737.
Boeing insists simulator training isn’t necessary. Avoiding that would help get the planes back in the air faster, and, according to one former engineer, let Boeing skirt a $1 million a plane penalty due to Southwest Airlines Co. Regulators were grilled by the Senate this week, and while the Transportation Department and National Transportation Safety Board pointed out past attempts to flag deficiencies in the FAA program that outsources work to the planemakers, the finger-pointing largely skipped Boeing itself.
FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell backed up Boeing’s contention that the Max cockpit is similar enough to previous 737 models that additional training and manual updates weren’t required, indicating the agency may bless the relatively easy and inexpensive software update as sufficient.
The rest of the world is a different question. China suspended a certificate of airworthiness for the Max in a sign it will act on its own timetable when reviewing the plane’s safety and also announced a $35 billion order for Airbus SE jets that’s nearly double what was touted a year ago. Garuda Indonesia says its passengers don’t trust the Max so it’s canceling a $4.8 billion order and shopping for older Boeing models; Vietnam’s Bamboo Airways is ordering Airbus jets, a month after saying it was considering a Max order; Kenya Airways isn’t making a call on the Max yet but CEO Sebastian Mikosz says there needs to be “a very detailed and large communications exercise to explain what was wrong and what was corrected.” I don’t think we have that yet.
Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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Photo credit: Restoring trust will take more than a software upgrade. Photographer: Stephen Brashear / Getty Images via Bloomberg