By Ed Pierson
It’s been only three years since two Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes crashed in a span of five months. A total of 346 people were killed in the two disasters. Since then, we’ve learned that a reckless, profit-driven culture at Boeing /zigman2/quotes/208579720/composite BA +1.99% contributed directly to both crashes.
But even though Boeing was recently fined $200 million for making misleading statements about the safety of its planes, the company is now lobbying Congress for an exemption from the Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act of 2020 .
Given Boeing’s troubled history, Congress must deny this request.
The two Boeing crashes in 2018 and 2019 prompted an unprecedented global grounding of 737 MAX airplanes. And in the aftermath of the disasters, federal investigators learned that Boeing engaged in a far-reaching effort to conceal its safety problems from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
I worked at Boeing for 10 years, including as a senior manager within the 737 Program. I saw firsthand some of the moves within the company that contributed to the eventual crashes.
For example, in 2016 and 2017, Boeing laid off engineers and reduced its commercial airplane workforce by almost 8,000. In the first few months of 2017 alone, Boeing cut 1,332 engineering and technical jobs from its workforce. This was done to trim expenses and boost profits. Significantly, from 2013 to 2019, Boeing’s board voted to spend what amounted to 104% of its profits on stock buybacks, rather than allocate funds for additional engineering and safety measures.
Additionally, Boeing engineers were pressured by management to limit safety analyses in order to reduce costs. As a result, many of us had serious misgivings about the MAX—and tried to raise our concerns with management.
Even after the two crashes, Boeing continued to be evasive in its dealings with the public. In fact, Boeing only began to reveal its conduct to the Justice Department after successfully delaying a crash investigation for six months .
Serious concerns about alert system
At present, the 737 airplane is still flying around the world. But many of us who have worked in the aviation industry still have serious concerns about its safety. Overall, there have been five fatal crashes of 737 aircraft since 2005, resulting in 564 fatalities. All five crashes were linked to inadequate, false, or “nuisance” crew alerts. Despite this, the 737 continues to rely on an outdated crew alert system.
Now, Boeing is preparing to launch a new model called the 737 MAX 10. In order to save money, Boeing wants to use its old crew alerting system in the new plane. The problem for Boeing, though, is that the outdated system fails to comply with a 2011 rule mandated in the 2020 Aircraft Safety Act.
Rather than spend time and money to install a modern crew alerting system—and meet the requirements of the 2020 legislation—Boeing is instead trying to do an end-run around the FAA by requesting an exemption from Congress. And if Congress grants this waiver to Boeing, the MAX 10 could move forward—and use the same antiquated crew alert system linked to previous airplane crashes.
Ironically, Boeing has installed a modern crew alerting system in all of its other aircraft. And since 2004, Boeing has had the opportunity to allocate money to comply with a safer alerting system for the 737 as well.
Boeing’s attempt to bypass the Aircraft Safety Act of 2020 is deeply disturbing. Congress should say no to such a self-serving request. And the FAA should fully investigate Boeing’s actions to make sure that future aircraft—including the MAX 10—don’t use the same unsafe crew alerting system.
It’s time for Washington to stand up to Boeing—and put an end to the company’s “profit over safety” mind-set.
Ed Pierson graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a commanding officer in the U.S. Navy. He later worked at Boeing for 10 years, including as a senior manager in the Boeing 737 program.