Boeing’s board of directors recommended a series of internal reforms Wednesday that aim to improve aircraft safety and help restore the company’s damaged reputation in light of the ongoing grounding of its marquee 737 MAX jets following two crashes that killed 346 people.
The board called for revamping oversight of a controversial program that delegates Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authority to company engineers and technical experts, allowing Boeing to help certify its own airplanes as safe and airworthy.
That recommendation calls for Boeing experts, known as “authorized representatives” under the FAA’s Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) program, to report to a new aviation safety organization within the company, called Product and Services Safety, rather than to business and program managers.
In May, a Seattle Times investigation found that Boeing engineers who were officially designated to be the FAA’s eyes and ears faced heavy pressure from Boeing managers to limit safety analysis and testing so the company could meet its schedule and keep down costs.
Boeing said the new internal organization would be headed by a vice president who reports directly to company leadership. It also would be tasked with overseeing Boeing’s Accident Investigations Team, safety review boards and investigations of “cases of undue pressure and anonymous product and service safety concerns raised by employees,” according to the announcement from CEO Dennis Muilenburg and board members detailing the recommendations.
The new structure “should increase awareness and reporting of, and accountability for, safety issues within the company,” Boeing said.
Boeing’s board also recommended making permanent an Aerospace Safety Committee created in August. The panel, to be headed by retired Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, would be responsible for overseeing and ensuring safe aircraft design, production, operation and maintenance, and report directly to the board.
Those recommendations and others are the result of a five-month outside review of Boeing’s policies and processes by a committee formed in April after the fatal crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the company said.
“The independent committee review was extensive, rigorous and focused on delivering specific recommendations to ensure the highest levels of safety in Boeing airplanes and aerospace products and services and for all who fly on Boeing airplanes,” Giambastiani, a former vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the company’s statement.
Two longtime industry experts who reviewed the board’s recommendations separately described them as a necessary first step in cultural changes that are long overdue.
“These are all great and necessary and a long time coming,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, a Washington, D.C.-based aerospace and defense consultancy. “I’m just concerned about the details and longevity.”
“A willingness to adhere to these goals in the long run is essential,” Aboulafia said. “In the aftermath of two disasters and a grounding, it’s easy to commit to these cultural changes, but harder to maintain them in the long run. We will see if that happens.”
Added Scott Hamilton, an aviation consultant for the Bainbridge Island-based Leeham Company: “The term ‘wake-up call’ is a way overused cliché, but this clearly was a wake up call… It’s just a tragedy it took losing two planeloads of people to get to this point.”
The board’s recommendations come at a critical juncture for Boeing, as it prepares to submit software fixes to a suspect anti-stall flight-control system, as well as address other issues to get regulators to return the MAX to flight.
The flight-control system, called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), was designed to swivel the MAX’s horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. It has since been implicated as a factor in the “runaway” stabilizer situations that preceded both crashes. The FAA ordered the airplane grounded after the second crash amid various ongoing investigations.
The company also faces further scrutiny in the months ahead. The Department of Justice is conducting a criminal investigation; the National Transportation Safety Board is set to announce new safety recommendations; a congressional subcommittee is planning more hearings to delve deeper into Boeing culture and the MAX crashes; and foreign regulators and investigators have launched their own reviews.
Absent from the board’s recommendations, both of the analysts noted, was a commitment to put more engineers into top executive positions. Neither of Boeing’s top commercial and corporate executives held engineering degrees during the time the MAX largely was under development, they said.
Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant for 40 years, said Boeing should have caught and addressed internal problems much earlier, before the MAX disasters, especially after a series of issues emerged during development of its 787 and 747-8 jets.
“The fact that safety concerns didn’t make it up to the very top of the company was something that (the Boeing engineers union) SPEEA and myself have complained about many, many times,” he said.
Several current and former Boeing engineers, in the wake of the MAX crashes, have described a culture within the company that muzzles employees from voicing concerns or stymies communication. Some said they feared retaliation if they spoke out, or that when they did, their concerns went nowhere.
A spokesman for SPEEA said Wednesday morning he had yet to see the company’s recommendations and declined comment.
One recommendation announced Wednesday appears to attempt to address internal communications issues by changing the reporting chain of command for engineers. They will now report to the chief engineer, currently Greg Hyslop, who in turn would report to Muilenburg. The vice president heading the new Product and Services Safety group also would report to Hyslop.
The board also recommended that Boeing:
- Work with airlines to “re-examine assumptions around flight-deck design and operation,” particularly given shifts in demographics and “future pilot populations.” Boeing should also work to bolster pilot training methods and teaching materials.
- Require all safety reports, and potential safety reports, to be reviewed by the chief engineer. Doing so would “increase transparency” and ensure that issues flagged from all levels of the company wind up in front of senior management.
- Enhance the company’s formal aircraft design requirements program to incorporate “historical design materials, data and information, best practices, lessons learned and detailed after-action reports,” and
- Expand the company’s Safety Promotion Center beyond Boeing’s engineering and manufacturing communities to the “global network of employees, factories, facilities and offices” as a way to reinforce a culture of safety.
Muilenburg and senior leadership are now reviewing the board’s recommendations and are expected to soon announce what specific actions the company will take in response, Boeing’s statement said.