Skift Take

The text messages between Boeing test pilots that came out recently may not be a smoking gun, but they don't look good. How will airlines respond? Let's hope with some backbone.

Skift Editor-at-Large Brian Sumers writes this column with a critical eye on the important global issues impacting the airline industry, from the middle seat of the last row in economy class to the boardrooms of the world's largest carriers.

Despite grounding some of their most expensive assets for months, most of the world’s airlines — except for perhaps Ryanair — have been diplomatic in their treatment of Boeing over Max problems. The manufacturer, they say, is a “trusted partner,” and if any disagreements arise, they promise to deal with them privately.

Might that soon end?

There were many revelations last week in the November 2016 text messages between two top technical pilots for the Boeing 737 Max program, first reported by Reuters. Chief among them are indications Boeing pilots knew how dangerous the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System could be more than two years before two airplanes crashed within five months. “It’s running rampant in the sim on me,” one test pilot said to another, meaning the airplane was behaving erratically in the simulator.

That part is getting most press coverage, and rightly so. Boeing screwed up far more than most people realized, even withholding that information from the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s going to get pilloried, and we might see a CEO change or other drastic action.

I want to focus on something else. After reading these messages, we have to wonder if airlines knew what they were buying. It’s one thing to not tell pilots about some features — Boeing has said it didn’t want to overwhelm them about a system they might never use — but it’s not clear how much Boeing informed airlines about the Max’s technical features. Would you buy a car if you didn’t know what was in it?

The airlines have stayed silent long enough. When will they perk up and start complaining? Usually they whine behind closed doors, negotiating to receive discounts on future orders. But this situation is more complicated than most. It’s time for airlines to complain loudly, so their customers can hear and so the industry will change.

Obviously no one was supposed to see these messages. But most revealing was when Chief Technical Pilot Mark Forkner wrote to colleague Patrik Gustavsson to joke about how Boeing markets and sells airplanes. The two were discussing the relative stresses of pilot jobs, and Forkner joked he could always take a less demanding gig at Boeing.

“I’d ask for a job in sales where I can just get paid to drink with customers and lie about how awesome our airplanes are,” he said.

No doubt Forkner likes sarcasm, as he clearly doesn’t “suck at flying,” as one of his messages suggests. But there’s some truth in his comments. The process of buying aircraft is remarkably clubby, and airlines often align with one manufacturer or the other for reasons that have little to do with aircraft performance or characteristics. You can hardly navigate any industry conference without attending a Boeing or Airbus party, or hearing about a secret gathering to which you were not invited.

Maybe it’s time for manufacturers to spend more time on quality control and less on marketing? And maybe airlines and lessors, who spend billions of dollars each year on aircraft, should be louder in what they expect?

There may be indications change is coming. Most famously, over the summer Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary told Boeing to get its “shit together” over the Max, but O’Leary always likes to run his mouth. More interestingly, Emirates President last month blasted both major airline manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, for failing to provide simple quality control.

His airline doesn’t fly the Max, so he was criticizing the industry more broadly, questioning whether manufacturers erred by squeezing their supplies on cost, while rushing products to market.

“I get it out of the door quicker, just in time, which compromises my outbound quality control,” Clark told me and other reporters in a briefing in London. “Then you run real risks that your aircraft that you sell to your customer will not actually pass muster.” At a trade conference last week in Dubai, Clark doubled down, accusing manufacturers of overpromising on what they could deliver.

We could use more vigor from U.S. airlines. Asked on the last earnings call about what American Airlines will demand from compensation from Boeing, CEO Doug Parker said “We’ve had high-level conversations,” with the company. He called Boeing a “partner.”

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly has been more effusive. In his July earnings call, he told analysts, “We think that Boeing is a very strong company, a great partner, and believe that the Max 8 is the best airplane in its category.”

American and Southwest report third quarter earnings on Thursday. The flying public is appalled by Boeing, and investors aren’t happy either. Will Southwest and American executives finally use this public forum to talk tough about Boeing? Or will they keep the platitudes going?

Let’s hope we finally see some tough talk.


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Tags: airbus, american airlines, Boeing, boeing 737 max, emirates air, on airlines, ryanair, united airlines

Photo credit: Boeing may have known about potential Boeing 737 Max problems earlier than it let on. Pictured is a Max 9. David Ryder / Bloomberg

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