Boeing’s Calhoun Faces a Host of Issues

Skeptics wonder if Calhoun is the best person to fix what ails the aerospace giant.

Boeing headquarters
Boeing faces challenges ahead that go beyond the Max and reach into company culture as well.Boeing

David Calhoun assumed the role of Boeing’s CEO only one week ago, but his plate of problems was already full because of the chaos surrounding the company’s beleaguered 737 Max. Recent news following the ousting of Calhoun’s predecessor Dennis Muilenburg has only continued to darken the credibility cloud hanging over the company. Some industry sources are skeptical however that David Calhoun, a longtime Boeing board member, is the person to pull the company out of the hole it has dug itself into.

David Calhoun
David Calhoun has been an active member of Boeing’s Board of Directors since 2009.Boeing

Boeing is reportedly planning to begin test flights of the revised MCAS software possibly by March, a year since the fleet was grounded around the world. The MCAS software was believed to be at the heart of both the 2018 Lion Air and the 2019 Ethiopian Airlines accidents. An internal Boeing audit in December also discovered potential flaws in two critical wiring bundles in the tail section of the 737 Max according to the New York Times: “Boeing is still trying to determine whether that scenario could actually occur on a flight and, if so, whether it would need to separate the wire bundles in the roughly 800 Max jets that have already been built.” Boeing said that the fix for this problem would be relatively simple.

A prime economic reason some airlines purchased the 737 Max centered around Boeing’s claim that the updated aircraft would not demand simulator training for thousands of pilots. The company, in fact, promised Southwest Airlines $1 million per airplane if it did not keep to that promise. In March 2017, an email from Boeing’s 737 chief technical pilot discussing the transition from older NG model to the Max—and published in the Washington Post last week—said, “I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required to transition from NG to MAX. Boeing will not allow that to happen. We’ll go face to face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement.” Last week Boeing suddenly reversed course saying it now believes pilots should spend time in a simulator before the airplane returns to service. The final decision rests with the FAA. The New York Times reported the agency is expected to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation.

Last Thursday the Washington Post reported the contents of additional emails and chat messages made public by Boeing last Thursday that offered insights into the contemptuous attitudes expressed by a number of unnamed company employees for the creation of the Max. A Boeing spokesperson said, “These communications do not reflect the company we are and need to be, and they are completely unacceptable.” The comments highlight some of the cultural issues now facing Calhoun. Boeing is reportedly tracking down the authors of all the messages released last week.

In one message from a Boeing employee posted in April 2017, more than a year before the first accident, this person said of the Max project, “This airplane is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.” In February 2018 another Boeing employee said, “I don’t know how to refer to the very, very few of us on the program who are interested in only in truth. But it’s mostly depressing that it’s so few.” Another responded, “Honesty is the only way in this job—integrity when lives are on the line on the aircraft and training programs shouldn’t be taken with a pinch of salt. Would you put your family on a MAX simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.” The first employee agreed saying, “No.”

Politico reported Monday that last week’s internal Boeing messages has angered many in Congress who are now calling for changes to aviation safety laws. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) said the messages show a “troubling disregard for safety among some at Boeing and raise questions about the efficacy of FAA’s oversight of the certification process.” Maria Cantwell, (D-WA) wants to organize additional hearings on aviation safety, while Garrett Graves (R-LA) member of the House Transportation Committee says there needs to be either a legislative or an administrative fix to the Boeing problems.

There are of course, non-737 Max issues hounding Calhoun such as the slow down of the 777X project and some structural issues related to the 737 NG series.