Boeing: From Aviation Excellence to ESG Disaster

Joan Sammon02 May, 2024 4 Min Read
Terror at 16,000 feet.

Since late January much has been discovered about Boeing Corporation in the wake of a near mid-air catastrophe at 16,000 feet when a panel, known as, the left, mid-exit door plug, blew off an Alaska Airlines 737-Max 9 aircraft. The dramatic event has been punctuated by revelations by multiple whistleblowers describing failed quality-control processes, documentation inconsistencies, petty bosses, and an adherence to prescriptive management tactics that flowed from the corporate board and C-suite.

The disastrous list of failures offers a prescient example of how influences from outside a company and even from outside an industry can distract a board and C-suite from its core business and cause irreparable damage. The accounts reveal how the decisions of three decades ago have intersected with the decisions of three years ago, leaving in their wake the death of innocent people, the stench of mediocrity, and a litany of leadership lessons from which other corporate leaders can learn.

The way it's supposed to work.

In the days following the January door plug blow out, a post appeared on an aviation blog written by an anonymous, purported current employee. The author flatly asserted that four bolts that were supposed to hold the door plug in place were "…not installed when Boeing delivered the plane [to Alaska Airlines], our own records reflect this." The whistleblower further described the Renton, Washington-based 737 production system as a “…rambling, shambling, disaster waiting to happen” -- even asserting specific details about the exact plane that lost the door plug mid-air.

This check job [of the door plug] was completed on 31 August 2023, and did turn up discrepancies, but on the RH [right hand] side door, not the LH [left hand] that actually failed. …it was inevitable something would slip through- and on the incident aircraft something did.

While the account is stunning on its face, it aligns with similar details revealed in a whistleblower lawsuit brought by former Boeing employee John Barnett about the 787 program in South Carolina. Details of that complaint describe a similar fundamental shift away from the two factors that had made the Boeing brand an industry leader -- precision engineering and quality manufacturing. The suit describes a contentious work environment that fostered speed over quality. It describes how managers worked to force out senior employees who remembered the higher standards and Boeing’s brand promise of decades ago.

Barnett ended up dying from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, after day two of what was supposed to be three days of testimony about what he allegedly knew about the Boeing failures, and what he had done to try to correct or effect the defective manufacturing processes. Barnett's curiously timed death is considered by family, friends and his attorneys to be suspicious.

But for many, the issues revealed by whistleblowers and Boeing clients and their passengers earlier this year are not new. The C-Suite and board’s emphasis on cost-cutting, its inappropriate regulatory relationships, influences by activist organizations regarding ideological themes, and a disregard for safety were revealed during the lead up and in the aftermath of tragedy that in late 2018 and 2019 led to two fatal crashes-- killing a combined 346 people. In those cases, it was the decision by Boeing to use Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, known as MCAS without communicating its existence to airline customers and their pilots, that led to those crashes.

Not what's supposed to happen.

An automated flight control feature of the Boeing 737 MAX, it was intended to adapt the MAX’s flying characteristics to new engines and their mounting position on the wings. Intending to improve fuel efficiency in an era of "climate catastrophe" narratives, and function as a inexpensive and expeditious response to competition, Boeing leadership found itself in an uncomfortable spot. As Boeing sought to remain competitive against its European rival Airbus, which had introduced the more fuel-efficient Airbus NEO, the company needed a quick fix. Caught competitively flat-footed, Boeing leadership chose not to reintroduce a properly engineered modification for the larger fuel-efficient engines, but rather a software control feature that was meant to account for the offsetting weight and placement of the new engines.

But the company never communicated its integration of the software system to its airline customers because doing so would have added to Boeing's cost because of the need to train pilots for the software's automated implications. With diminished economics and an eye toward balance sheet optimization management and quarterly earnings, Boeing deceived its customers, exposing pilots and passengers to fatal consequences. Even in the face of the first crash, Boeing executives made the determination that the odds of a second crash occurring were "unlikely." They were wrong. Five months after the first crash, the second crash occurred leaving no doubt that Boeing valued “easy” over excellent.

One of the largest aerospace companies in the world, the former pride of American manufacturing and a leading U.S. exporter, Boeing, according to the World Economic Forum's (WEF) member portal, is, among the largest builder of commercial jetliners and military aircraft in the world -- and NASA's largest contractor. Its capabilities encompass development of electronic and defense systems, missiles, launch vehicles, satellites, rocket engines, and advanced information and communications systems, air traffic management and financial services. With customers in 150 countries, Boeing is a global influencer.

But rather than the company being humbled by its recent string of disasters, Boeing executives seem cartoonishly dedicated to the aims of the WEF -- aims far afield of manufacturing excellence or aviation safety. Instead of addressing documented, serious quality control issues inside the company, Boeing has been distracted by the pernicious agenda of the WEF, the genesis of which reaches back decades,  and is primarily responsible for Boeing’s precipitous descent from leader of advanced aviation engineering to faddish adherent of  ESG and DEI programs that have led to failure in almost every quarter of its manufacturing operations. 

Joan Sammon is the founder of a boutique oil and gas advisory firm that develops strategies for an array of business & market challenges. As an ESG expert she explains the threat of ESG to her corporate clients.


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2 comments on “Boeing: From Aviation Excellence to ESG Disaster”

  1. Decades ago I read a comment about the cause of the Challenger disaster that, I think, quoted Richard Feynman saying something to the effect that NASA was tired of rescheduling, and when the Thiokol engineers recommended not to launch someone in the decision-making chain decided to make a management decision, not an engineering decision, and so the Challenger was launched, and blew up.
    It's evident that Boeing has driven out engineers and technically oriented people from senior management. Now the managers, "real" managers, make management decisions, not engineering decisions and it has cost lives, cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars, and Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars, and customer and airline passenger trust. It also appears that senior management doesn't understand that.
    Also, top Boeing leadership appears to be applying the Harvard Business School method of management: the company you manage is disposable, don't worry about long-term survival of the corporation, maximize shareholders' returns and your own wealth. It appears that they don't understand how important the technical details are in manufacturing and design, and development are to maximizing shareholder returns.

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