When I was trained at Boston University’s graduate journalism school decades ago, I trembled when I entered my news writing class. The teacher was a hard-bitten journalist who didn’t mince words when students submitted works not to his liking. I did my best to keep my head down and avoid his wrath.
In those days, universities didn’t afford students “safe places” to run and hide from things that made them uncomfortable.
If my journalism professor was to review the media coverage in wake of the near catastrophic Boeing 737 MAX 9 Alaska Airlines accident at 16,000 feet, I’m confident he’d advise most of the reporters and editors responsible to pursue another line of work.
The media’s role is to hold government agencies accountable, but reporters these days prefer to sit at their computers and spew the FAA’s preferred narrative that safety concerns reign supreme at the aviation watchdog.
“The safety of the flying public, not speed, will determine the timeline for returning these (737 MAX 9) aircraft to service,” the FAA said in a statement.
The FAA’s safety oversight record in recent years is dubious, not surprising since the agency has long been overseen by a revolving door of industry executives who take their turn at “public service” before returning to more lucrative corporate aviation jobs. As but one example, after serving five terms as FAA’s administrator, Marion Blakey in 2007 joined the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) as chief executive. AIA represents the interests of commercial plane manufacturers and serves as a contractor to the Pentagon.
Underscoring the FAA’s reluctance to act against aircraft manufacturers, the FAA trailed 42 other country regulators in deciding to ground the 737 MAX in 2019 after the controversial aircraft crashed multiple times within a period of six months. In 2005, the FAA turned its safety certification responsibilities over to aircraft manufacturers, a move that was estimated to save the aviation industry $25 billion over the following decade.
Boeing enjoys bipartisan support, with President Obama once remarking that he was Boeing’s “salesman in chief” and President Trump declaring on a 2017 visit to a Boeing plant in North Carolina, “God bless you, may God bless the United States of America, and God bless Boeing.”
The FAA a week ago said it would require the inspection of 40 737 MAX 9 planes before it would approve new inspection and maintenance instructions developed by Boeing. Five days later, FAA announced the inspections had already been completed.
I’ve yet to find one reporter who dared to ask how the FAA could compete 40 inspections of 737 MAX 9 planes within a matter of days. I’d welcome knowing if the agency relied on the safety auditors who initially approved the aircraft’s airworthiness. Perhaps there’s an app that allowed the FAA to instantly find experienced aviation engineers capable of conducting nose-to-tail aircraft inspections on dozens of planes in less than a week.
Even Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board who I’ve perceived as being genuinely committed to ensuring public safety, has proven a disappointment. Homendy told reporters her investigation will focus on the technical causes of the Alaska Airlines mishap, not Boeing’s management.
It would behoove Homendy to watch the accompanying podcast featuring three veteran NTSB investigators, including John Goglia, who wrote the definitive book on safety management systems in aviation. Among the lessons she’d learn is that Boeing began reducing its emphasis on safety after it merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997 and it’s been downhill ever since. The podcast hosts explain that aviation manufacturing executives have a disdain for safety auditors because they aren’t perceived as adding anything of value to the bottom line. They insist that an effective safety aviation manufacturing system can only be achieved if it is driven by the CEO.
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has served on the company’s board since 2009 and reportedly was instrumental in driving the cost cutting that’s led to Boeing’s current troubles. If the previous 737 MAX crashes didn’t serve as wake-up calls, it takes a giant leap of faith to believe Calhoun will suddenly get religion about safety.
Calhoun’s arrogance is such that at a press event to launch the opening of Boeing’s headquarters in Arlington, VA, he declared, “Remember now what headquarters is – it’s me, (and the) CFO.”
It hardly inspires confidence that Calhoun tapped retired U.S. Naval Admiral Kirkland Donald to serve as his special advisor on safety issues. In addition to lacking aviation experience, Donald has served as a director of navy shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls the past seven years, a company that also has been embroiled in safety issues, including its aviation systems.
I’m not alone in my view that Calhoun should be held responsible for Boeing’s reputation decline. Consider this insight from Richard Aboulafia, the managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, a Michigan-based aviation consultancy that considers itself “part of the industry.”
“What used to be a duopoly has become two-thirds Airbus, one-third Boeing,” Aboulafia told the New York Times. “A lot of people, whether investors, financiers or customers, are looking at Airbus and seeing a company run by competent people,” he said. “The contrast with Boeing is fairly profound.”
The contrast is readily understandable given the respective backgrounds and compensations of the executives overseeing Airbus and Boeing.
Guillaume Faury, the CEO of Airbus, began his career as a flight-test helicopter engineer and worked in research and development for Peugeot, where he oversaw development of the automaker’s hybrid technology. He also served as CEO of Airbus’ helicopter division, where he oversaw the restructuring of its manufacturing system and introduced new technologies.
Faury’s 2022 compensation was $4.8 million.
Boeing Calhoun is an accountant with no technical training. He previously worked at GE and the private equity firm Blackstone. His background alone explains Boeing’s current troubles.
Calhoun’s 2022 compensation was $22.5 million.
Former Wall Street Journal aviation reporter Andy Pasztor in September provided more evidence of the FAA’s failed safety oversight with this commentary published in Aviation Week regarding issues with Pratt & Whitney’s GTF engine, which resulted in the grounding and the inspection of Airbus A320 fleets of multiple airlines.
A sampling of Pasztor’s insights:
The latest safety problem affecting Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbofan engines highlights the FAA’s lack of resolve confronting persistent safety challenges.
The engine troubles, following durability issues that have plagued the model for years, have sparked serious concerns among airline executives worldwide because hundreds of popular single-aisle Airbus A320neo jets face accelerated engine inspections, and some may need emergency part replacements soon. Certain carriers are girding for financial heartburn and painful schedule disruptions.
What hasn’t received enough attention, however, is the FAA’s initial limp response to these long-simmering challenges. More scrutiny also is warranted to examine its ambivalence combating a broad range of hazards, including overreliance on cockpit automation and little-known shortcomings analyzing commuter and charter incidents.
The FAA had a distinctly passive reaction to heightened dangers posed by a rare but potentially catastrophic engine manufacturing defect. Pratt started to uncover the new hazards last winter but did not reveal them publicly until summer. In its surprise July disclosure, the company warned that contaminated powder metal used in certain turbine disks required stepped-up checks of many more geared turbofan engines than previously anticipated.
Before that announcement, FAA officials quietly weighed forceful moves, from ordering immediate ultrasound inspections for a segment of the fleet to temporarily grounding some jets, according to industry officials not authorized to comment publicly. But company executives pushed back hard, citing negative economic and public relations fallout.
RTX Corp., formerly known as Raytheon Technologies and the owner of Pratt & Whitney, disputed Pasztor’s claim the company “pushed back hard” on the FAA taking action.
If the FAA and Congress were serious about addressing the safety issues regarding the 737 MAX planes, they would ground all of them indefinitely, demand the immediate resignation of Calhoun, and hold urgent meetings to discuss the privatization of Boeing, given the company’s strategic importance.
The good news is that Pasztor’s Aviation Week bio says he’s working on a book about the history of flight safety. Let’s hope Pasztor’s book attains the prominence and results of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, which was published in the 1965 and exposed the U.S. automobile industry’s disregard for safety.
Nader’s bestselling book forced Congress and most states to pass meaningful safety regulations and bolstered government oversight of the automotive industry. As I’ve previously written, there are some unsung heroes at the National Highway Transportation Safety Commission looking to protect as few as 140 lives.
The NHTSA was created in response to Nader’s book.