Beyond pilot trash talk, 737 Max documents reveal how intensely Boeing focused on cost

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The damaging internal documents related to the 737 Max jet that Boeing released Thursday are full of late-night trash talk between two company pilots who mocked federal regulators, airline officials, suppliers and their own colleagues as idiots, clowns or monkeys.

While some of the more memorable quotes may be dismissed as bravado – nothing more than hard-charging guys who “blew off steam” after work, as the lawyer for the lead pilot put it – other, more sober internal emails reveal the pressures the pilots were under from the Max program leadership. They suggest a troubling Boeing culture that prioritized costs over safety.

All the messages from the leaders of the Max program “are about meeting schedule, not delivering quality,” one employee laments in a 2018 email.

Boeing has disowned the language in the communications and offered an abject public apology. On Friday, interim CEO Greg Smith sent an internal email to employees declaring that the messages “do not reflect who we are as a company or the culture we’ve created.”

The evidence in the documents, however, points beyond a couple of rogue employees to serious problems with how the Max was developed and certified.

The details drew widespread outrage Friday.

Michael Stumo, father of 24-year-old Samya Stumo of Massachusetts, who died in the Ethiopian crash, said, “These revelations sicken me.”

“The culture of Boeing has eroded horribly,” he added. “My daughter is dead as a result.”

Chris Moore, of Toronto, Canada, father of Danielle Moore, 24, who also died in that crash, said, “We spent an agonizing night thinking about these comments” in the documents. He called for an investigation that would “strip any professional accreditation from those who do not care about the safety of the flying public.”

Robert Clifford, lead lawyer for the Ethiopian Airlines victims, said the documents will “be used by the families of the victims to show a jury that Boeing was reckless and put profits before safety.”

The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), the union representing some staff units within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), termed the messages “disheartening” and called for re-evaluation of the increased delegation of oversight granted by regulators to Boeing for airplane development.

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she is “deeply concerned” by the documents and Boeing’s apparent intent “to work around the FAA and foreign regulators.”

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives were particularly incensed by one document showing that, in order to avoid any need for additional pilot training, Boeing downplayed to the FAA the significance of the new flight control software on the Max – known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) – that was implicated in the two crash flights.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee vice-chair Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, said these “efforts to characterize the MCAS software as seemingly inconsequential were a serious mistake.”

He called for Congress to pull back some of Boeing’s authority to handle oversight of its own jet programs, a move that would likely slow certification of its upcoming new airplane, the Everett-built 777X.

Loose talk

Most of the documents made public Thursday were forwarded to Congress, the Department of Justice and the FAA in late December, the same day that Boeing fired Dennis Muilenburg as CEO. Boeing added some more documents with the release.

All the documents came out of a group within Boeing that worked during development of the 737 Max to get the flight simulators qualified by regulators and to determine the training that would be required for an airline pilot to move from the previous 737 model to the Max.

Many of the messages are from then-737 chief technical pilot Mark Forkner, including some late-night instant message exchanges with his deputy, Patrik Gustavsson, similar in tone to conversations released in October that sparked outrage then.

In the newly released exchanges, with Forkner sometimes drinking Grey Goose vodka – “I just like airplanes, football, chicks and vodka, not in that order,” he wrote – and Gustavsson preferring Bowmore Scotch, both talk loosely about their bosses and everyone else they have to deal with in varying derogatory ways.

Though Boeing redacted most of the names, so that one cannot pin down the individuals speaking in many other exchanges, the sentiments expressed are deeply embarrassing to the company.

One pilot who gave a presentation to FAA staff mocks their lack of technical knowledge: “It was like dogs watching TV.”

The supplier of the large Max simulators, U.S.-Canadian firm TRU, is “disorganized, chaotic, dysfunctional,” though hard-working, honest, and cheap.

The 737 Max is described as “designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys.”

“Would you put your family on a Max-simulator trained aircraft?” one pilot asks, then answers himself: “I wouldn’t.” His colleague agreed.

Indonesia’s air safety authority, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), is “apparently even stupider” than another unnamed foreign regulator.

And one pilot notes, in reference to dealings with the FAA, that “I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year.”

Saving airlines money

Behind this loose talk are more telling details. The emphasis in all the documents is on meeting the directive from Max program leaders that the new jet must be classified by regulators as so close to the previous 737 model that airlines will have to pay for only minimal pilot training. Forkner writes of pulling “jedi mind tricks” to convince regulators of this.

The reason for the emphasis is clear from one email thread that begins with Boeing’s jet sales director for Africa and the Caribbean expressing concern when an airline considering buying the Max asks for precise dollar figures for what pilot training will cost.

He’s worried because the airline believes it needs to allocate two days of training per pilot, including a two-night hotel stay and a per diem payment at one of the few cities with a Max simulator.

In the exchanges that follow, Boeing employees point out that “Airbus is throwing money” at airlines that are prepared to flip from the 737 to the Airbus A320neo. They offer the assurance that the transition training for a pilot to move from the previous 737 to a Max will not be two days, but two hours on a computer, on the pilot’s own time.

“We can say it will be zero dollars in crew salary cost for offline time,” a Boeing employee tells the sales director.

When Indonesian carrier Lion Air in 2017 asked for simulator training for its pilots, apparently at the suggestion of the country’s regulator, known as DGCA, Forkner scrambled to convince the airline that it shouldn’t do so.

He approached DGCA and argued that other regulators didn’t require sim training, so why should Indonesia.

This manipulation by Boeing of both its airline customer and a foreign regulator looks damning in hindsight, especially when the first crash was a Lion Air jet.

Simulator training might well have gone some way to compensating for the over-reliance on cockpit automation and a lack of manual flying experience by pilots at some low-cost carriers overseas, which has emerged as an issue after the two crashes.

And just this week, Boeing conceded as much when it reversed course and recommended simulator training for all pilots before the Max returns to service.

Resisting system upgrades

The documents also show that the pressure to make little of the differences between the Max and the previous model extended to certification of the aircraft, including systems important to safety.

One safety upgrade proposed for the Max that would have greatly improved the jet’s air data systems was called synthetic airspeed. Engineers including Curtis Ewbank, who later filed an internal ethics complaint, believed this could have overcome the vulnerability due to MCAS’s dependence on a single angle of attack sensor.

The documents show this was rejected because it would “jeopardize the program directive” that there should be no new systems that would trigger a requirement for simulator training.

Another safety upgrade, called Roll Command Alerting Systems (RCAS), was introduced for the Max to alert the pilots to an excessive bank angle that the autopilot might not cope with. However, again to minimize differences, as it was developing the Max Boeing introduced RCAS as a new feature first on the previous 737 NG model, and encouraged airlines taking the Max to have at least one earlier model 737 with RCAS in their fleet so that then they could say there’s no difference between the two models.

And in relation to certification of RCAS, the emails show that Boeing employees discussed how to minimize this new crew alert to the FAA so as not to raise concerns that pilots might need simulator training on what to do if the alert light comes on.

One message notes how the alert will most likely come on if an engine goes out, and suggests that the recovery from that needs to be sold to the FAA “as a very intuitive basic pilot skill.”

“I fear that skill is not very intuitive any more with younger pilots and those who have become too reliant on automation,” a colleague responded.

“Probably true,” replied the first Boeing pilot. “But it’s the box we’re painted into with the (no simulator) requirements.”

In a later email, Forkner said he was fairly sure the FAA’s Aircraft Evaluation Group would want to require some training on RCAS in a simulator. “We are going to push back very hard on this, and will likely need support at the highest levels when it comes time for the final negotiation.”

Failure to avoid simulator training because of RCAS would be a “planet-killer for the Max,” he wrote.

In the end, he and Boeing got their way.

After the document release Thursday, a Boeing official insisted that the company’s “overriding imperative in designing and developing the Max was to ensure that the airplane design was safe.”

He said the objective to avoid simulator training “was subordinate to this safety imperative.”

Yet soon after the Max was certified in 2018, when a series of internal emails addressed why the Max simulator program had proved so troublesome and expensive, the employees in the conversation pointed to a “culture” that prioritized cost-cutting over everything else.

“We put ourselves in this position by picking the lowest cost supplier (a reference to TRU) and signing up to impossible schedules,” wrote a Boeing employee. “We have a senior leadership team that understand very little about the business and yet are driving us to certain objectives.”

“Time and time again, we are inundated with Boeing material specifying quality is key – this clearly is not the case in any of the decisions that are made,” wrote another. “Until an open and frank discussion takes place, the same errors, wasted opportunities, and financial losses will continually be absorbed.”

Corrected: The system upgrade called RCAS was introduced on newly-built 737 NGs ahead of its installation on the 737 Max. An earlier version of this story mistakenly said it was “retrofitted” to older 737 NGs.


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