After less than a year in charge in Renton, the Boeing vice president who runs the assembly plant there and manages the 737 MAX program is retiring. A factory operations expert, Eric Lindblad was brought in to fix manufacturing and supply chain issues but leaves as the jet program is engulfed by a safety crisis that has raised doubts about Boeing’s design.
Lindblad, 57, who has spent 34 years at Boeing as a well-regarded manufacturing executive, took over the Renton plant and the 737 program last August following a series of issues with the supply of engines and fuselages that had slowed jet deliveries and led to a buildup of parked 737 planes.
However, within months his job was swiftly consumed by the crisis surrounding the 737 MAX following two crashes that killed 346 people.
In a letter to employees announcing the news Thursday, Boeing Commercial Airplanes boss Kevin McAllister made clear that Lindblad is not being forced out, saying that Lindblad “shared with me his desire to retire last year, and we will now begin to embark on a thoughtful and seamless transition plan.”
McAllister praised Lindblad’s “strong leadership and tireless drive over the past 12 months leading the 737 program, as he has navigated some of the most difficult challenges our company has ever faced.”
“We are grateful for his service and dedication,” McAllister wrote.
In his own letter to employees, Lindblad confirmed that “I had planned to retire last summer. But having the chance to come to Renton and work with all of you was something I couldn’t pass up.”
“When I rejoined the 737 team a year ago, it was like a homecoming for me. I’m proud to say that 23 of my 34 years at Boeing have been spent here in Renton,” Lindblad told employees. He added that “this past year has been one of the most challenging times the 737 program has ever faced.”
Less than three months after he took over in Renton, charged with fixing the 737 supply chain problems, those issues paled into insignificance after a Lion Air 737 MAX crashed in Indonesia at the end of October, killing 189 people.
Just a week after the crash, Boeing issued a bulletin to MAX operators highlighting a previously unknown problem with the plane. It told pilots that a failed Angle of Attack sensor on the Lion Air jet could have activated a new flight control system that repeatedly pushed the nose of the plane down.
With that, Boeing’s focus, and Lindblad’s, shifted to finding an engineering fix for this vulnerability. But before that was accomplished, the second crash, of an Ethiopian Airlines jet in March, killed another 157 people and led to the worldwide grounding of the MAX.
Ever since, parked 737 MAXs have been piling up all around the Puget Sound region and further afield, in what has become the biggest crisis facing Boeing in decades.
Before that, he had been vice president of manufacturing operations in Renton, where he oversaw the highly successful automation of the assembly processes there and an unprecedented ramp-up in production.
To replace Lindblad, McAllister has appointed Mark Jenks, who had been in charge of developing Boeing’s proposed new jet program, the New Midmarket Airplane, or NMA. Lindblad said that over the coming weeks he’ll be working closely with Jenks “to ensure a smooth transition.”
McAllister said Jenks “led the 787 program during some of its most challenging of years, and has held several leadership roles within Boeing’s defense and space businesses” and that his experience would help the 737 program “as we carefully and fully return to the 737 MAX to service.”
Taking over the NMA program in place of Jenks will be vice president Mike Sinnett, who currently leads Boeing’s longer-term Product Strategy and Future Airplane Development, and who is also the technical leader Boeing appointed to speak publicly about the design of the flight control system that went awry on the MAX.
Sinnett will keep his longer-term strategic role as well as leading the NMA program, which could suggest that the focus on NMA is being pushed out until the MAX crisis is resolved. McAllister in his letter to employees sought to counter any such inference.
“Let me be clear — the NMA team will continue to operate as a program,” McAllister wrote, adding that Sinnett’s experience as vice president and chief project engineer for the 787 Dreamliner program would help move NMA forward.
Yet as he announced the leadership shuffle, McAllister reiterated that the MAX remains Boeing’s top priority:
“These are unprecedented times for us, as our primary focus remains the safe return of service for the 737 MAX and driving quality and safety in all that we do,” he told employees.