Contempt for regulators, airlines and their own colleagues coupled with a casual approach to safety: a series of emails by Boeing employees paint an unflattering portrait of a company culture of “arrogance” imbued with a fixation on cost-cutting.
The emails underscore the task awaiting incoming CEO David Calhoun when he takes the company’s reins on Monday, under intense pressure to restore public confidence – and that of aviation regulators worldwide – after two fatal crashes of the 737 MAX aircraft.
The emails were contained in some 100 pages of documents dated between 2013 and 2018 and transmitted to US lawmakers by the Seattle-based aviation giant. The messages were released Thursday.
Often cutting, dismissive, mocking or cavalier, the messages show that Boeing’s current difficulties reach far beyond the 737 MAX, shining a light on a level of dysfunction that seems almost unimaginable for a company that helped democratize air travel – and which builds the US president’s iconic Air Force One airplane.
The emails show that Boeing tried to play down the role of its MCAS flight-control system in order both to avoid the costs involved in having to train pilots on the system in flight simulators and to speed the federal green-lighting of the MAX plane.
Investigators singled out the role of the MCAS (the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) in the fatal crashes of MAX planes flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air (October 29, 2018) and Ethiopian Airlines (March 10, 2019).
Those crashes claimed 346 lives and led to the plane’s worldwide grounding last March.
“I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required,” one Boeing employee messaged a colleague on March 28, 2017, a few months before the MAX received federal certification.
The message went on: “Boeing will not allow that to happen. We’ll go face-to-face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement.”
A few months later, the same employee – a test pilot – bragged about having “save(d) this company a sick amount of $$$$.”
The names of most of the employees who sent the messages were blacked out.
In 2018, several employees working on the MAX simulators complained of encountering numerous technical difficulties.
“Would you put your family on a MAX simulator-trained aircraft? I wouldn’t,” said a message sent in February 2018, eight months before the first crash. “No,” a colleague agreed.
Two other employees said they were concerned about the impact on Boeing’s image at a time, they said, when the company’s leaders seemed obsessed with the idea of gaining ground on Airbus’s narrow-body A320neo.
“All the messages are about meeting schedule, not delivering quality,” one employee said. A colleague replied: “We put ourselves in this position by picking the lowest-cost supplier and signing up to impossible schedules.
“Why did the lowest-ranking and most unproven supplier receive the contract? Solely because of the bottom dollar.”
Robert Clifford, a US lawyer representing victims’ families from the Ethiopian Airlines crash, said the Boeing culture led to “unnecessary and preventable deaths.”
“Excuses will not be heard,” he said in a statement on his law firm’s website.
The documents also show Boeing employees questioning the competence of the company’s engineers.
“This is a joke,” an employee wrote in September 2016, in a reference to the MAX. “This airplane is ridiculous.”
“Piss poor design,” said another, in April 2017.
And yet for decades Boeing was seen as representing the very best in aerospace engineering and design. It developed the 747, nicknamed the “queen of the skies,” and contributed to the Apollo program that sent man to the moon.
The aerospace company and its huge network of suppliers are goliaths of the US economy.
In June 2018, one employee messaged his own analysis of the problem: “It’s systemic. It’s culture. It’s the fact that we have a senior leadership team that understands very little about the business and yet are driving us to certain objectives” while not “being accountable.”
Michel Merluzeau, an analyst with Air Insight Research, said: “Boeing needs to re-examine an operational culture from another era.”
Greg Smith, Boeing’s interim chief executive officer, insisted that “these documents do not represent the best of Boeing.”
In a message to staff sent Friday, he added: “The tone and language of the messages are inappropriate, particularly when used in discussion of such important matters.”
Some emails are dismissive of federal regulators, starting with those from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who approved the MAX.
“There is no confidence that the FAA is understanding what they are accepting,” an employee wrote in February 2016.
Nor were airlines spared.
“Now friggin’ Lion Air might need a sim(ulator) to fly the MAX, and maybe because of their own stupidity,” an employee wrote in June 2017, more than a year before a 737 MAX crashed near Jakarta. “Idiots!”
Yet another employee, this one more somberly, wrote in February 2018: “Our arrogance is (our) pure demise.”