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‘I Honestly Don’t Trust Many People at Boeing’: A Broken Culture Exposed [long read but worth it]
A trove of internal employee communications shows that the aviation giant’s
troubles go beyond one poorly designed plane.
Boeing’s troubles run deep. The 737 Max, its newest and most important jet, has
been grounded since March after two deadly crashes killed 346 people. The
cascading crisis has disrupted the global aviation industry, cost the company
billions of dollars and led to the ouster of its chief executive.
Yet the steady drip of bad news and embarrassing revelations — culminating in
Thursday’s release of 117 pages of damning internal communications — has
revealed something more disturbing than one poorly designed plane. The very
culture at Boeing appears to be broken, with some senior employees having little
regard for regulators, customers and even co-workers.
Perhaps most tellingly, the documents show Boeing employees repeatedly
questioning the competence of their own colleagues, and the quality of the
“This is a joke,” a Boeing employee, referring to the 737 Max, said to a
colleague in 2016. “This airplane is ridiculous.”
Another employee wrote: “I honestly don’t trust many people at Boeing.”
Boeing is the largest manufacturing exporter in the United States, and its fate
can sway the national economy. It employs more than 130,000 people, in all 50
states, and supports a network of thousands of suppliers. And the dysfunction at
the heart of one of America’s most important companies, as illustrated by the
new messages, still has the power to shock.
“We’ve all seen this movie before, in places like Enron,” Chesley B.
Sullenberger III, the pilot who safely landed a plane on the Hudson River in
2009, said in an interview. “It’s not surprising that before a crisis, there are
indications of real deep problems that have their roots in leadership.”
Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, said
the messages revealed a “sick” culture at Boeing, noting that “the trust level
was already in the toilet.”
The internal communications, which were provided to congressional investigators
and cover a five-year period before the crashes in late 2018 and early 2019,
show Boeing employees cavalierly dismissing the Federal Aviation Administration,
which certified the Max as safe to fly. Ahead of a 2016 meeting to discuss
training requirements for the plane, a Boeing employee described regulators as
“dogs watching TV.” Another time, a Boeing employee wrote: “There is no
confidence that the F.A.A. is understanding what they are accepting (or
Airlines, which pay about $100 million apiece for the Max, were derided as
incompetent, their questions unreasonable. When discussing whether pilots at an
Indonesian airline connected to Lion Air, which operated the first Max that
crashed, might need simulator training before flying the Max, a Boeing employee
said it was “because of their own stupidity” and called the airline “idiots.”
“This is confirmation that the problems go beyond Muilenburg,” said Michael
Stumo, whose daughter Samya was killed in the second Max crash, referring to
Dennis A. Muilenburg, the chief executive who was dismissed last month. “This is
deeply flawed, long-term cultural erosion.”
On Friday morning, Greg Smith, Boeing’s interim chief executive, wrote an email
to employees expressing contrition for the messages and imploring the company to
“These documents do not represent the best of Boeing,” Mr. Smith said in the
email, which was obtained by The New York Times. “The tone and language of the
messages are inappropriate, particularly when used in discussion of such
important matters, and they do not reflect who we are as a company or the
culture we’ve created.”
Mr. Smith noted that the messages involved a relatively small number of
employees, and said the company had confidence in the Max. The company declined
to comment on Friday beyond Mr. Smith’s email.
For generations, Boeing represented the pinnacle of American engineering. It
helped win World War II, land men on the moon, build Air Force One and make
commercial air travel ubiquitous, even glamorous. But the newly released
messages portray a company that appears to have lost its way.
Once relentlessly focused on safety and engineering, Boeing employees are shown
obsessing over the bottom line. Though Boeing is one of the American
government’s biggest contractors, the F.A.A. was viewed as a roadblock to
commercial goals that would “impede progress” when it tried to “get in the way.”
At times, Boeing employees expressed reservations about the safety of their
“Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t,” one
said to a colleague in 2018, before the first crash.
While the most insensitive comments appear to have been made by a few employees,
the messages reveal a coordinated effort among Boeing employees to persuade the
F.A.A. that the Max did not need simulator training, a significant financial
boon for the company.
Boeing employees congratulated one another for using “Jedi mind tricks” to
convince regulators that minimal training was needed on the Max. In an email
from 2016 celebrating the agency’s preliminary decision not to require simulator
training on the Max, the plane’s chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner, said the
news “culminates more than three years of tireless and collaborative efforts
across many business units.” Last year, other damaging internal communications
involving Mr. Forkner were released.
In an exchange with Mr. Forkner in 2014, an employee who was developing the
computer-based training for the Max suggested providing more guidance in the
pilot manual for how to handle certain emergencies. (The plane featured a new
software system later found to have played a role in both crashes.)
Mr. Forkner told the employee that the company couldn’t add that information
because it might lead regulators to require more extensive training for pilots.
“We need to sell this as a very intuitive basic pilot skill,” Mr. Forkner wrote.
“I fear that skill is not very intuitive any more with the younger pilots and
those who have become too reliant on automation,” the employee responded.
“Probably true, but it’s the box we’re painted into,” Mr. Forkner said, citing
the desire to keep training to a minimum. “A bad excuse, but what I’m being
pressured into complying with.”
After fighting so hard to avoid simulator training, Boeing reversed itself this
week and recommended that all pilots have the training before flying the Max.
Bloomberg Intelligence estimated that it would cost the company $5 billion,
though Boeing said it was too soon to know the true figure.
“Had they done the right thing upfront, they might have had slightly higher
costs upfront, but they would have saved billions in the long term,” Mr.
Sullenberger said. “But that’s hard to do in this world run by Wall Street.”
Stan Sorscher, a former Boeing engineer who then worked with a union
representing company engineers, said priorities had shifted over the past two
decades, with profits mattering more than quality.
“Engineers normally just don’t talk that way,” Mr. Sorscher said of the
messages. “It’s not the company I knew.”
Boeing and the F.A.A. said on Thursday that the new messages, damning as they
are, did not reveal any new safety concerns about the Max. Regulators may
approve the Max to return to service in the coming months, and the plane could
be flying commercially by the summer.
Yet Boeing’s problems are hardly over. The messages are likely to further
undermine public confidence in the company and the Max. Today, according to
Boeing’s own research, 40 percent of travelers are unwilling to fly on the
plane. There is no timetable for the return of the Max, costs are mounting, and
shares in the company have fallen 22 percent since the second crash, including a
2 percent drop on Friday.
After last month’s announcement that Boeing would temporarily shut down
production of the Max, suppliers are hurting, too. On Friday, Spirit
AeroSystems, which makes the fuselage for the plane, said it would lay off
around 2,800 employees.
With a new chief executive, David Calhoun, taking over on Monday, Boeing is
trying to turn a corner. The company promoted its transparency in releasing the
messages and its decision to recommend simulator training as examples of a new
culture. On Friday, Boeing said Mr. Calhoun would receive a $7 million bonus if
he got the Max safely flying again. (Mr. Muilenburg is leaving with $62.2
million in stock and pension awards.)
But in the words of Boeing’s own employees, the culture is entrenched. As
recently as mid-2018, colleagues were lamenting the state of their company in
pained emails to one another.
“I don’t know how to fix these things … it’s systemic,” one employee wrote to
another in an email about the 737 Max. “Sometimes you have to let big things
fail so that everyone can identify a problem … maybe that’s what needs to happen
rather than continuing to scrape by.”
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