Ralph Nader Calls Out Boeing for 737 MAX Lack of Airworthiness, Stock Buybacks, and Demands Muilenburg Resign

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Ralph Nader has published an open letter to Dennis A. Muilenburg, current CEO of Boeing, which is worth reading in full. There’s a personal connection:

[Nader’s] niece, 24-year-old Samya Stumo, was among the 157 victims of an Ethiopian Airlines flight crash last month, less than six months after a flight on the same aircraft, the Boeing 737 Max 8, crashed in Indonesia.

Nader comments, in Stumo’s obituary in the Berkshire Eagle:

“She was compassionate from the get-go. She’d be 8 years old and she’d get a pail of hot water and go to her great-grandmother and soak her feet and rub her feet and dry them. She was always that way.”

Clifford Law has brought suit on behalf of the Stumo family in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. From the complaint:

Blinded by its greed, BOEING haphazardly rushed the 737 MAX 8 to market, with the knowledge and tacit approval of the United States Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), while BOEING actively concealed the nature of the automated system defects. Numerous decisions by BOEING’s leadership substantially contributed to the subject crash and demonstrate BOEING’s conscious disregard for the lives of others, including but not limited to BOEING’s role in: designing an aircraft with a powerful automated flight control system [the MCAS] susceptible to catastrophic failure in the event a single defective sensor; failing to properly inform pilots of the existence of the new flight control system and educate and train them in all aspects of its operation; failing to properly address the new system in the aircraft’s flight manual; refusing to include key safety features as standard in the aircraft rather than optional upgrades; delivering 737 MAX aircraft with a version of the flight control system that was materially different from the version presented to the FAA during certification; and failing to take appropriate action after BOEING learned that the 737 MAX aircraft was not performing as intended or safety, as was made tragically clear with the crash of Lion Air Flight JT 610.

BOEING’s decision to put profits over safety is further evident in BOEING’s repeated claims that the 737 MAX 8 is so similar to its earlier models that it does not require significant retraining for those pilots familiar with the older generation of 737s.

All pretty much conventional wisdom at this point! The suit also calls for exemplary (punitive) damages; I’ve embedded the complaint at the end of the post, in case any readers care to dig into it. I’m not going to examine the case in this post; rather, I’m going to focus on three items from Naders letter that I think advance the story: His framing for 737 MAX airworthiness; his highlighting of Boeing’s stock buybacks; and his call for Boeing CEO Muilenburg’s defenestration.

Nader on 737 MAX Airworthiness

From Nader’s letter:

Aircraft should be stall-proof, not stall-prone.

(Stalling, in Nader’s telling, being the condition the defective MCAS system was meant to correct.) Because aircraft that are aerodynamicallly unstable, llke fighter jets, have ejection seats! Now, a pedant would point out that Nader means commercial aircraft, but as readers know, I eschew pedantry in all contexts. That said, Nader manages to encapsulate the problem in a single sentence (using antithesis, isocolon, and anaphora). Now, we have pilots in the commentariat who will surely say whether Nader’s formulation is correct, but to this layperson it seems to be. From 737 MAX, a fan/geek site, on the business and technical logic of the MCAS system:

The LEAP engine nacelles are larger and had to be mounted slightly higher and further forward from the previous NG CFM56-7 engines to give the necessary ground clearance. This new location and larger size of nacelle cause the vortex flow off the nacelle body to produce lift at high AoA [Angle of Attack]. As the nacelle is ahead of the C of G, this lift causes a slight pitch-up effect (ie a reducing stick force) which could lead the pilot to inadvertently pull the yoke further aft than intended bringing the aircraft closer towards the stall. This abnormal nose-up pitching is not allowable under 14CFR §25.203(a) “Stall characteristics”. Several aerodynamic solutions were introduced such as revising the leading edge stall strip and modifying the leading edge vortilons but they were insufficient to pass regulation. MCAS was therefore introduced to give an automatic nose down stabilizer input during elevated AoA when flaps are up.

Nader on Stock Buybacks

From Nader’s letter, where he is addressing Muilenberg (“you”) directly:

Boeing management’s behavior must be seen in the context of Boeing’s use of its earned capital. Did you use the $30 billion surplus from 2009 to 2017 to reinvest in R&D, in new narrow-body passenger aircraft? Or did you, instead, essentially burn this surplus with self-serving stock buybacks of $30 billion in that period? Boeing is one of the companies that MarketWatch labelled as “Five companies that spent lavishly on stock buybacks while pension funding lagged.”

Incredibly, your buybacks of $9.24 billion in 2017 comprised 109% of annual earnings. As you well know, stock buybacks do not create any jobs. They improve the metrics for the executive compensation packages of top Boeing bosses [ka-ching]. Undeterred, in 2018, buybacks of $9 billion constituted 86% of annual earnings.

To make your management recklessly worse, in December 2018, you arranged for your rubberstamp Board of Directors to approve $20 billion more in buybacks. Apparently, you had amortized the cost of the Indonesian Lion Air crash victims as not providing any significant impact on your future guidance to the investor world.

Holy moley, that’s real money! Nader’s detail on the stock buybacks (see NC here, here, and here) interested me, because it bears on Boeing’s 2011 decision not to build a new narrow-body aircraft in 2011. I summarized the decision-making back in March:

(2) Choice of Airframe: The Air Current describes the competitive environment that led Boeing to upgrade the 737 to the 737 MAX, instead of building a new plane:

Boeing wanted to replace the 737. The plan had even earned the endorsement of its now-retired chief executive. “We’re gonna do a new airplane,” Jim McNerney said in February of that same year. “We’re not done evaluating this whole situation yet, but our current bias is to not re-engine, is to move to an all-new airplane at the end of the decade.” History went in a different direction. Airbus, riding its same decades-long incremental strategy and chipping away at Boeing’s market supremacy, had made no secret of its plans to put new engines on the A320. But its own re-engined jet somehow managed to take Boeing by surprise. Airbus and American forced Boeing’s hand. It had to put new engines on the 737 to stay even with its rival.

Why? The earlier butchered launch of the 787:

Boeing justified the decision thusly: There were huge and excruciatingly painful near-term obstacles on its way to a new single-aisle airplane. In the summer of 2011, the 787 Dreamliner wasn’t yet done after billions invested and years of delays. More than 800 airplanes later here in 2019, each 787 costs less to build than sell, but it’s still running a $23 billion production cost deficit.…. The 737 Max was Boeing’s ticket to holding the line on its position — both market and financial — in the near term. Abandoning the 737 would’ve meant walking away from its golden goose that helped finance the astronomical costs of the 787 and the development of the 777X.

So, we might think of Boeing as a runner who’s tripped and fallen: The initial stumble, followed by loss of balance, was the 787; with the 737 MAX, Boeing hit the surface of the track.

So, Dennis. How’s that workin’ out for ya? How does the decision not to build a new plane look in retrospect? Ygeslias writes in Vox, in April:

Looking back, Boeing probably wishes it had just stuck with the “build a new plane” plan and toughed out a few years of rough sales, rather than ending up in the current situation. Right now the company is, in effect, trying to patch things up piecemeal — a software update here, a new warning light there, etc. — in hopes of persuading global regulatory agencies to let its planes fly again.

What Nader’s focus on stock buybacks shows, is that Boeing had the capital to invest in developing a new plane. From Bloomberg in 2019:

For Boeing and Airbus, committing to an all-new aircraft is a once-in-a-decade event. Costs are prohibitive, delays are the norm and payoff can take years to materialize. Boeing could easily spend more than $15 billion on the NMA, according to Ken Herbert, analyst with Canaccord Genuity, and Airbus may be forced into a clean-sheet design if sales take off.

The sales force has been fine-tuning the design with airlines for at least five years, creating a “will it or won’t it?” drama around the decision on whether to make the plane, known internally at Boeing as the NMA, for new, middle-of-market airplane.

Now, it is true that the “huge and excruciatingly painful near-term obstacles” referred to by the Air Current are sales losses that Boeing would incur from putting a bullet into it’s cash cow, the 737, before it turned into a dog (like now?). Nevertheless, Beoing was clearly capable, as Yglesias points put, of “tough[ing]out a few years of rough sales.” So what else was “excruciatingly painful”? Losing the stock buybacks (and that sweet, sweet executive compensation). Readers, I wasn’t cynical enough. I should have given consideration to the possibility that Muilenburg and his merry men were looting the company!

Nader on Muilenburg

Finally, from Nader’s letter:

Consider, in addition, the statement of two Harvard scholars—Leonard J. Marcus and Eric J. McNulty, authors of the forthcoming book, You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most. These gentlemen did not achieve their positions by using strong language. That is why, the concluding statement in their CNN article on March 27, 2019, merits your closer attention:

“Of course, if Boeing did not act in good faith in deploying the 737 Max and the Justice Department’s investigation discovers Boeing cut corners or attempted to avoid proper regulatory reviews of the modifications to the aircraft, Muilenburg and any other executives involved should resign immediately. Too many families, indeed communities, depend on the continued viability of Boeing.”

These preconditions have already been disclosed and are evidentially based. Your mismanagement is replete with documentation, including your obsession with shareholder value and executive compensation. There is no need to wait for some long-drawn out, redundant inquiry. Management was criminally negligent, 346 lives of passengers and crew were lost. You and your team should forfeit your compensation and should resign forthwith.

All concerned with aviation safety should have your public response.

I can’t find anything to disagree with here. However, I’ll quote from commenter Guido at Leeham News, March 29, 2019:

What I don’t understand: Muilenburg was the CEO when the MCAS code was implemented. Muilenburg was the CEO when Boeing “tweaked” the certification of the B737Max. It was the Boeing management that decided, that the B737Max must under no circumstances trigger simulator training for pilots.

Muilenburg has for sure not written the code for MCAS by himself, but as the CEO he is responsible for the mess. He is responsible, that the first version of MCAS was cheap and fast to implement, but not safe. It was basically Muilenburg, who allowed a strategy, that was basically: Profits and Quickness before safety. Muilenburg has the responsibility for 346 dead people. You can’t kill 346 people with your new product and still be the highly paid CEO of the company. There have to be consequences.

Why are there no calls, that Muilenburg must step down?

Nader has now issued such a call. As [lambert preens modestly] did Naked Capitalism on March 19.

Conclusion

Wrapping up, Muilenberg has plenty of other lawsuits to worry about:

However, a search of court documents and news reports shows the company is facing at least 34 claims from victims’ families and one claim seeking class certification on behalf of shareholders. The claims allege Boeing is responsible for losses after installing an unsafe anti-stall system, called “MCAS” (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), on its 737 Max 8 planes, suspected to have played a role in both crashes. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said it was “apparent” the system had been activated in both crashes.

Added to the uncertainty of potential expenses for Boeing are pending regulator probes. The U.S. Justice Department initiated a criminal investigation into Boeing’s Federal Aviation Administration certification, as well as how it marketed its 737 Max 8 planes. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General is also conducting an inquiry.

On April 9, the lawsuit seeking class certification was brought on behalf of shareholders who purchased Boeing stock between January 8, 2019 and March 21, 2019. The proposed class period covers a time frame beginning after the Lion Air crash, and extending beyond the Ethiopian Airlines crash, when Boeing’s stock experienced a steep decline.

But then again, Muilenberg may know — or think — that Boeing, as a national champion, is too big to fail. So, if Boeing gracefully exits from the commercial aviation business, it may find the warm embrace of government contracting more comfortable. Perhaps that’s why propaganda like this suddenly started showing up in my Twitter feed:

I suppose it’s too much to ask that the CEO of a too-big-to-fail company be asked to resign, even if he did kill a lot of people. But if Nader can do with the 737 MAX, at the end of his career, what he did with the Corvair (“a one-car accident”), when he was coming up, everybody except for a cabal of looters and liars in Boeing’s Chicago C-suite will be a lot better off. So we can hope.

APPENDIX 1: The Rosy Scenario

From Ask the Pilot:

I keep going back to the DC-10 fiasco in the 1970s.

In 1974, in one of the most horrific air disasters of all time, a THY (Turkish Airlines) DC-10 crashed after takeoff from Orly Airport outside Paris, killing 346 people. The accident was traced to a faulty cargo door design. (The same door had nearly caused the crash of an American Airlines DC-10 two years earlier.) McDonnell Douglas had hurriedly designed a plane with a door that it knew was defective, then, in the aftermath of Paris, tried to cover the whole thing up. It was reckless, even criminal. Then, in 1979, American flight 191, also a DC-10, went down at Chicago-O’Hare, killing 273 — to this day the deadliest air crash ever on U.S. soil — after an engine detached on takeoff. Investigators blamed improper maintenance procedures (including use of a forklift to raise the engine and its pylon), and then found pylon cracks in at least six other DC-10s, causing the entire fleet to be grounded for 37 days. The NTSB cited “deficiencies in the surveillance and reporting procedures of the FAA,” as well as production and quality control problems at McDonnell Douglas.

That’s two of history’s ten deadliest air crashes, complete with design defects, a cover-up, and 619 dead people. And don’t forget the 737 itself has a checkered past, going back to the rudder problems that caused the crash of USAir flight 427 in 1994 (and likely the crash of United flight 585 in 1991). Yet the DC-10, the 737, and America’s aviation prestige along with them, have persevered. If we survived the those scandals we can probably manage this. I have a feeling that a year from now this saga will be mostly forgotten. Boeing and its stock price will recover, the MAX will be up and flying again, and on and on we go.

This is how it happens.

Maybe. But in 1974, the United States was commercial aviation. Airbus had launched its first plane, the A300, only in 1972. We were also an imperial hegemon in a way we are not now. For myself, I can’t help noticing that it was Boeing’s takeover of a wretched, corrupt McDonnell Douglas — the famous reverse takeover — that ultimately turned Boeing from an engineering company into a company driven by finance. With resulits that we see.

APPENDIX 2: The Stumo Complaint

Stumo-Complaint

 

APPENDIX 3: The Corvair

A Road and Track editor tested out how bad the Corvair really was. Their summary:

He explains the inherent compromise of the early car’s suspension:

“A pair of short half shafts connected the [rear] wheels to the frame-mounted differential. Only the inboard ends of the shafts could articulate, so as the suspension compressed or extended, the wheels tilted at extreme angles. This had the effect of dramatically reducing the rubber on the road. In an aggressive turn, the rear end tended to lose traction before the front, causing oversteer, or fishtailing. That wasn’t all, however. There was a chance, a slim one, that the outside rear wheel could tuck in under the body and potentially trip the car into a rollover. These effects were further exasperated when owners failed to heed the Corvair’s unconventional recommended tire pressures: 15 psi in the front and 26 psi in the rear.”

Webster took two Corvairs—including a yellow four-door that, get this, was originally owned by Ralph Nader—to an airfield to see what they’d do in different cornering scenarios. Almost immediately, he experienced oversteer that only got worse as the speeds rose:

“To avoid spinning the car, I have to counter-steer almost immediately after initiating the turn. To racers, this behavior is known as “loose,” and it’s generally preferred to a front end that simply understeers, or plows. But I could see how the lightly trained driver might get into trouble. That was Nader’s point: The average driver wasn’t equipped to handle an over-steering car.”

See, all the Corvair needed to overcome the “inherent compromise” of the design was an MCAS system! Then everything would have been fine.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

63 comments

  1. ChristopherJ

    The fact that the CEO and the Board have not resigned just shows everyone that they lack all the essential characteristics of human beings.
    Stock buybacks should be illegal. Profits should only be distributed via dividends or reinvested. The fact that companies can do this shows how corrupted our governments are.
    The rest of the world may forget this one. I won’t and there are millions like me who will never step aboard a boeing plane again.
    The only thing that will save this company now is the US govt, which is likely.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      Boeing’s management is not going to jail and likely will keep their jobs. The deaths of over three hundred people means nothing. They are not even American and probably only middle class so they don’t have connections to use. The “American” company Boeing has both money and connections.

      Money gives you rights and if you don’t have it, you are not even a human being.

      Just look at 2008. The Vampiric Octopus called Wall Street was saved by the Feds with almost no one going to jail, or even criminally prosecuted. The exceptions of an innocent small community bank in NYC and some low level employees of a very few loan companies. The entire planetary economy came to with in hours of freezing and then collapsing. Millions of Americans lost homes, often through questionably legal foreclosures, with many millions more losing their jobs.

      Nothing going to change and I wish I could believe otherwise.

      Reply
      1. DHG

        So I should just fire up my own money press then as should everyone else… Money was invented as a limiter by the ancient church then adopted by governments.. Money isnt necessary to live and it will b thrown overboard soon enough.

        Reply
        1. JBird4049

          I think money as a concept arose in Sumer about 6-7 thousand years ago with the clay receipts given by the temple of the local city’s patron god for livestock and grain stored there.

          But my knowledge of money’s history is limited. If anyone wants to correct or clarify, please do.

          Reply
          1. animalogic

            Might be wrong but think (if my memory of Gerber serves) you refer to credit/debt. Actual money (coin) I think arose along side the use of large scale Armies (armies are both highly mobile & inherently amorphous — ie people come & go, die, are wounded, loot must be traded etc, all of which is difficult in the absence of currency)

            Reply
    2. The Rev Kev

      Stock buybacks were once illegal because they are a type of stock market manipulation. But then Reagan got in and wanted to do his banker buddies a favour-

      https://mavenroundtable.io/theintellectualist/news/stock-buybacks-were-once-illegal-why-are-they-legal-now-sHh6HZjtyk2styG-qLgnQg/

      To think that Boeing has Ralph Nader of all people on their case. With apologies to Liam Neeson, Nader might be saying to Muilenberg right now: “If you are looking for (forgiveness), I can tell you I don’t have (forgiveness). But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you…go now, that’ll be the end of it.”
      That sounds like good advice that.

      Reply
    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      Re-outlawing the “Stock Buyback” would be one useful reNew The Deal reform. Outlawing compensation in stocks, options, or etc. of any kind except money would be another useful Newer Deal reform. Both together would force-multiply each other’s effect.

      I hope the four Old Real Democrats have people reading these threads and taking any possibly-good ideas back to headquarters. I hope the New Catfood Democrats and their people aren’t spying or eavesdropping on these threads.

      Reply
  2. JerryDenim

    Wow. Great post Lambert and nice job Mr Nader!

    I love how Nader brings stock buy-backs into his letter and basically connects the dots from a recklessly designed aircraft system full circle to an indictment of our current shareholder value system of capitalism and its perverse incentive structure which includes safety shortcuts and runaway executive compensation. Such a perfect case study for this site!

    I think Nader really should beat the drum heavily on the perverse incentive structure at Boeing and how executives shortchanged safety to grab more money for themselves because that’s an easy story for a jury to understand. I see where Nader is going with the inherently “stall prone” aerodynamic design stuff, and he’s not wrong, but I think he may be treading on dangerous ground. Automatic stabilizer trimming systems designed to overcome the negative aerodynamic attributes of the new 737 Max wing/engine design is a confusing rabbit hole for the lay person. Boeing attorneys and expert witnesses may be able to twist the jury’s head into a pretzel on this issue. The debate and discussion here concerning process, decision making, design philosophy etc at Boeing has generally been of very high quality, but has a tendency to go off the rails when the discussion dives too deeply into the subject matter of aerodynamics and aircraft systems. I could see the same dynamic playing out in the courtroom. Nader is the master class-action consumer advocacy attorney not me, but I think he should go heavy buybacks and whistle blower warnings while avoiding unforced errors arguing over the not-so-important point of whether or not the 737 Max crashed because it was stall prone or because it was too stall adverse. Two brand new Boeings crashed, people died, Boeing was greedy, Boeing was hasty, the MCAS trim system was garbage and probably criminal. He’s got a slam dunk case arguing the MCAS trim system with a single point of failure was poorly designed and recklessly conceived, I think he should just stick to that and the greed angle and avoid the stall prone vs. stall adverse debate. I wish him luck.

    Reply
    1. Darius

      They screwed up the plane design then thought an extra layer of software would ameliorate the problem enough. It sucks but it’s probably just good enough. Seems pretty simple.

      Reply
      1. Darius

        They effed up the hardware and thought they could paper it over with more software. But at least the shareholders and executives did well.

        Reply
        1. Alex V

          As JerryDenim touched on, a good defense lawyer would probably be able to defeat this argument in front of a jury. There are too many examples of successful and safe commercial aircraft with aerodynamic compromises (the hardware, as you call it) that use software fixes to overcome these limitations. The focus in this case would need to be on the implementation of that software and how criminal neglect occurred there.

          Reply
          1. JerryDenim

            Boeing’s attorneys are going to try and make any lawsuits a question of why the airplanes ultimately crashed. I hate to spoil it for anyone, but I can tell you Boeing’s attorneys are going to blame it all on the pilots. Airlines and airplane manufactures always do. Nothing new. Dead pilots can’t defend themselves, their families don’t have millions in the bank and they aren’t going to be placing any billion dollar aircraft orders in the future. If anyone has read my frequently maligned comments, you already know the line of attack. Not following the runaway trim procedures and overspeeding the aircraft with takeoff thrust set. That’s why Nader or anyone else pursuing Boeing would do well to sidestep the “why did two Boeing 737 Max Jets crash” question and stick to the details surrounding the horribly flawed MCAS trim system and the Boeing corporate greed story. Steer clear of the pilots’ actions and the potentially confusing aerodynamics of modern jetliners, keep the focus squarely on the MCAS trim system design process and executive greed.

            Reply
            1. animalogic

              Anyone prosecuting Boeing will have to deal with Boeing’s defence, which as noted, will play up the commoness of such technical compromises. I do wonder whether Boeing will go after the pilots, though.
              Any pilots argument naturally raises Boeing’s negligence re : training, flight manuals & communication. The prosecution case will naturally play up the greed aspect as cause/motivation/
              context for the crashes & Boeing’s direct responsibility /negligence.

              Reply
              1. Alex V

                The defense would likely also pull in the airlines and FAA as targets for liability, as both have some responsibility for these matters. Attacking the FAA would be fodder for the de-regulators (Privatize it! Government is incompetent!). The airlines would complain that competition forces them to cut costs, and that they meet all of the (gutted) legal requirements.

                Reply
    2. Alex V

      I agree with focusing on the greed aspect. Nader’s letter has some technical errors such as stating the engines were tilted (they were moved horizontally and vertically, not rotated) that show he hasn’t fully understood the details. It doesn’t help that many of the changes made to the 737 MAX from previous generations are actually quite subtle, and can’t really be discussed individually for this context. It is the sum of these changes that made it an extremely deadly aircraft.

      Reply
    3. Norb

      The other failure/business feature is the concept of modularity. The software designed to fix the aerodynamic complexities is broken down into modular components, and then sold off as “options”. Once again greed sabotages the system. Modularity is a great way to gouge customers and lock in higher profits. The level of technical competence needed to properly evaluate what modules are essential complicates the outcome. But then again, this can be rationalized as a feature not a bug. Blame for failure can be passed around- the customer should have purchased the entire package.

      The runaway externalities emanating from the current form of capitalism as practiced in the US must be reigned in. Voluntary compliance to some sort of moral code is useless- worse than useless in that corrupt operators can hide behind lame excuses for failure.

      The bigger problem is that Government regulations could solve these problems quickly, as in throwing people in jail and confiscating their property. A strong argument can be made for ill-gotten gains. I surely would vote for that if given the chance. Deal drugs and you can loose your home. What about conscious business decisions
      leading to harm?

      You need a strong force external to these business concerns for this to happen. The separation of government and business. Business should operate at the will of the government. When the government is run with the wellbeing of the people foremost, then issues like crashing planes can be rectified.

      When the interests of business and government merge, then what you have is fascism. American fascism will have a happy face. These unfortunate problems of crashing planes and polluted environments will trundle along into the future. Billionaires will continue to accumulate their billions while the rest of us will trundle along.

      But one day, trundling along won’t be an option. Maybe only outsiders to the US system can see this clearly.

      Reply
  3. Edward

    So when the original 737 was designed, did the engineers have the option of using these larger engines? Did they decline to do so because it was a flawed design?

    The fatalities from the crashes are a tragedy, but it is also a cruel irony that after a lifetime of fighting for consumer safety, Nader has this happen to his niece.

    Reply
    1. Ray Duray

      You ask: “So when the original 737 was designed, did the engineers have the option of using these larger engines? Did they decline to do so because it was a flawed design?”

      The larger engines currently in use on the 737 Max 8 were not designed until recently. They did not decline because the current engine wasn’t even invented.

      Here’s an abbreviated design history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_737#Engines

      Reply
      1. Edward

        I guess what I am wondering is if the original designers of the 737 had the option of designing a more powerful engine similar to that used in the 737 MAX but declined to do so. No doubt engine technology has advanced during the 50 years since the first 737’s were built. Could the engineers 50 years ago have designed engines like those on the 737 MAX? If so, what were there reasons for not doing so?

        I also have a second question. I have been told that stalling can be prevented by placing small wings at the front of an airplane. Would such a design have resolved the problems with the 737 MAX?

        Reply
        1. Plenue

          Fifty years of technological improvement, yes. The new engines aren’t more powerful, they’re more fuel efficient. Airbus had put more fuel efficient engines on its planes, so Boeing rushed new engines of its own into service to compete. But they’re really too large to be mounted on the 737; they mess up the center of gravity. MCAS was a janky software fix to solve a fundamental hardware problem, because Boeing didn’t want to design a new plane. And it didn’t want to lose money by requiring airlines to retrain pilots, it sold the plane with the new engines as being exactly the same as the old, a painless upgrade.

          Reply
        2. Alex V

          Canards, as the small wings at the front of aircraft are sometimes called, would likely not have been a fix in this case. There are some light aircraft that use these for stall prevention by utilizing the aerodynamic properties of the wing. Since a stall (absence of lift) is often caused by the nose of aircraft being too high, you can design the canard so that it stalls before the main wing. Thus it’s difficult for the whole plane to stall, since the nose will sink when the canard loses lift first and returns the plane to a more appropriate attitude. An example here:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rutan_VariEze

          And explanation of canards here:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canard_(aeronautics)

          In high performance aircraft canards are used to increase maneuverability by providing another control surface.

          We generally don’t see them in commercial aircraft for a few reasons:

          -Aircraft layout would not be conducive to carrying passengers – jetways would be awkward, doors would be less accessible, visibility out of the cockpit might be compromised.

          -Control surfaces at the tail of the aircraft are more effective, as the lever distance they act over is often longer. Tail surfaces are easier to place out of the airflow of the main wing than to place main wing out of the airflow of canards.

          -Added complexity for not much added benefit (if we were to add canards to a plane with tail surfaces as well).

          These are of course all very coarse generalizations – engineering is all about making technical and economic trade-offs.

          A radical example of what can be accomplished by a combination of aerodynamics and software is the B-2 bomber – only one main wing, no tail or canards. I know, it has ejection seats… but I sincerely doubt any aeronautical engineer has ever sat down and thought, “Hm, well, that’s a sketchy design, but screw it, they can just eject if I messed up”.

          Reply
              1. Edward

                So would Boeing have to design a new plane to use canards? It would probably require the 737 MAX pilots to have new training. Boeing also seemed to want to hide the instability problem and the canards would be visual evidence for the problem.

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                1. Alex V

                  As has been mentioned previously by 737 Pilot and other commenters – MCAS is a valid and safe engineering approach to the flying characteristics the engine change brought about. The problem was in the implementation. Canards would be an over-complicated and redundant solution to an issue that is ultimately solvable with simpler, proven technology and training.

                  Reply
    2. Synoia

      The 737 Was designed in the ’60. High bypass turbo fan engines had yet to be developed then.

      Upgrading the 737 is like adding a plug in hybrid engine to a Ford F100.

      Reply
    3. Alex V

      The original 737 was designed to be quite low to the ground, to allow for easier boarding in an era before widespread jetway use (models have even been offered with integrated pull out boarding stairs), and to allow for more accessible servicing.This worked well with the engines of the time, which were often low bypass turbofans, and thus smaller in diameter. This combination of height and engines made sense for the market it was designed.

      Most modern commercial engines are high bypass turbofans, and therefore larger in diameter. The move to larger fan diameters has been enabled by advances in materials, manufacturing technology, and simulation software, with the goal of increasing engine power and efficiency.

      Another factor influencing the engine size that can be used without extensive redesign is the landing gear operation. Because it folds towards the centerline of the plane, and into pockets in the bottom of the fuselage, there is a limit on how long it can be before it becomes too long and each side would collide with the other. And one would need to redesign the wing box structure to accommodate the moved wheels.

      Reply
  4. VietnamVet

    Exactly. This is a textbook case of the looting of America. The $30 billion dollars made by cutting costs including quality inspection, using an existing airframe, tax cuts and ignoring safety went directly to stock buybacks that benefited stockholders and C-suite compensation. Just like 2008 Boeing is “too big to fail and jailing the executives would cause it to collapse”. Unless Americans demand an end to the corruption and the restoration of the rule of law; the plundering will continue until there is nothing left to live on. Boeing could have designed two brand new safe airliners with that cash that would have provided jobs and efficient transportation into the future but instead the money went into the pockets of the connected rich and killed 346 people.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      What really gets me is that ultimately that would have given the fools more money because the orders would have kept on coming and probably increase, which would mean more profit and more compensation for everyone. Of course that would have taken a few years instead of immediately. So now the compensation is going to crash. Oh wait! They will just sell again to themselves, strip the company, and sell the nameplate still affixed to some ruin.

      I am starting to understand why the Goths had no resistance when in Italy and during the sack the city of Rome. Centuries earlier the Republic and then the Empire routinely raised multiple armies and dealt with catastrophes both natural and man made. At the end, not only could they not readily create an another army, they could not repair the aqueducts. Like we are becoming, Rome became a hollow shell.

      Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      And probably the only stockholders who even benefited would be the individual or family-dynasty rich stockholders who own many thousands to millions of shares of a particular stock at a time. It takes ownership of that many shares for a tiny benefit-per-share to add up to thousands or millions of tiny little benefits-per-share.

      People with pensions or 401ks or whatever may well involunarily “own” 2 or 3 or maybe 10 shares “apiece” of Boeing. But they derived no benefit from the tiny little benefit per share this maneuver gained for the shares.

      Reply
  5. ChrisPacific

    Re: appendix 3, over-steer is counter-intuitive as hell. Once it’s underway you have to steer left during a right turn and vice versa. I have watched race drivers do it (very skillfully) at the track, but there is no way I would want to be in a car that did that in a pressure or potential accident situation without a lot of training beforehand.

    Reply
  6. dearieme

    “your obsession with shareholder value”: shareholder value is not being attended to if the company is driven into the ground by virtue of its planes being driven into the ground.

    Clearly the definition of “shareholder value” that these bozos use is as defective as their engineering decision-making.

    Hang a few of them pour encourager les autres. And hang a few of the regulators who thought it would be a dandy idea to let the firm regulate itself.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      And hang a few of the lawmakers and lawbuyers who legislatively de-budgeted and money-starved FAA into this ” turn it over to the plane-makers” corner as well.

      Reply
  7. oaf

    There is another case of air disaster often referred to in what is known as *Human Factors* training…a L-1011 which *descended* into the glades; while the crew tried to sort out a problem with a light bulb. I suggest familiarizing with it for perspective. (not to exonerate Boeing; just to encourage keeping an open mind)

    Reply
    1. JerryDenim

      Ahhh, the infamous Captain Buddy. Immortal tyrant of early CRM training fame…

      Lambert’s mention of the DC-10 and it’s fatally flawed, explosive decompressing cargo door sent me down a hole of DC-10 disasters and accident reports. Some of those DC-10 incidents like America Airlines flight 96 could have been major tragedies but were saved by level heads and airmanship that by today’s standards would be considered exceptional. The AA 96 crew landed safely with no fatalities after an explosive decompression, a partially collapsed floor and severely compromised flight controls. The crew had to work together and use non-standard asymmetrical thrust and control inputs to overcome the effects of a stuck, fully deflected rudder and a crippled elevator. The pilots of the ill fated United flight 232, another DC-10, are celebrated exemplars of the early CRM case studies, both crew members and a United DC-10 instructor pilot who happened to be occupying the jumpseat all worked together to heroically crash land their horribly stricken craft in Sioux City Iowa with only partial aileron control and assymetrical thrust to control the airplane. No elevator, no rudder control. A good number of passengers perished but most lived. Those pilots in the two instances I mentioned were exceptional, and they had to resort to exceptional means to control their aircraft, but in light of airmanship of that caliber from just a few decades ago, it blows my mind that in 2019 the mere suggestion that professional airline pilots should probably still be capable of moving the thrust levers during a trim emergency is somehow controversial enough to expose oneself to charges of racism and bias?! Different times indeed.

      Boeing 737 Max aside, airplanes seem to be a lot safer these days than they were in the 1970’s and 80’s. Widespread acceptance and adoption of CRM/TEM has made personalities like Captain Buddy and many bad cockpit automation practices relics from the past, but automation itself still looks to be increasingly guilty of deskilling professional pilot ranks. In light of that trend, it’s a really good thing passenger jets in 2019 are more reliable than the DC-10 and easier to land than the MD-11.

      Reply
  8. The Rev Kev

    Two more links on the saga of the 737 MAX-

    “The Boeing 737 Max crashes show that ‘deteriorating pilot skills’ may push airlines to favor Airbus” at https://www.businessinsider.com/boeing-737-max-crashes-deteriorating-pilot-skills-airbus-2019-4/?r=AU&IR=T

    “Southwest and FAA officials never knew Boeing turned off a safety feature on its 737 Max jets, and dismissed ideas about grounding them” at https://www.businessinsider.com.au/boeing-737-max-safety-features-disable-southwest-grounding-discussions-2019-4

    Reply
    1. JerryDenim

      Deteriorating pilot skills. Yep. Now you’re getting it. Problem is, more automation equals more pilot skill degradation. Everything is just peachy with highly automated “idiot proof” airplanes until something breaks, then who is supposed to fly the plane if the pilots can’t? The flight attendants? Whoever is sitting in 1A? Airbus airplanes malfunction too, as documented in a number of well publicized disasters and not-so-well publicized near disasters, so while this may be an effective marketing pitch to an airline executive not able or not willing to pay for highly skilled, experienced pilots, it’s not a solution to a pilot skill crisis. Long term, it makes the situation worse.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        Personally I believe in training the hell out of pilots because if I get into a plane, I want a pilot at the controls and not an airplane-driver. I would bet that even I could be trained to fly an aircraft where most of the functions are automated but when things go south, that is when you want a pilot in control. Training is expensive but having an ill-trained pilot in the cockpit is even more expensive.

        Reply
  9. Alex V

    A thought…. A completely fresh plane design is not necessarily safer. There is aways a trade off between innovation and proven reliability. It is surprisingly rare for an entirely new aircraft family to be introduced without at least one problem that threatens (but does not always take) lives.

    Reply
  10. tim

    787 and 737 MAX are not the only problems Boeing have had.

    The 737 NG (Next Generation) airplane using composite materials for the aircraft body, was also outsourced, The idea was that the Body parts would be built to exacting specifications, so they could be connected at the stage of final assembly. However, the sub-contractor couldn’t live up to the specifications, so Boeing had to manually re-drill holes to connect the fuselage parts.

    Not long after we had a series of crashes, where the fuselage broke up into its parts, something almost never seen before in airplanes.

    youtube documentary from Australian SBS News:

    Reply
  11. skippy

    Umm … the investors and market demanded the executive suite too engage in such behavior or suffer the consequences aka hyper reporting et al.

    Reply
  12. oaf

    There are other Human Factors at play; regarding pilot ability…Measuring ability by simply looking at *hours flown* (often referred to as *experience*) is misleading. Relevant details might include just what types of experience. It is possible to get airline positions *ab initio*, or in-house, if you will (with 500 hours, (IIRC)…OR:
    Prospective pilots from private sector, or military, may be more likely to have diverse backgrounds; including Flight Instructor background, Upset Recovery training; Aerobatic flying; and Glider or sailplane background. These are not necessarily prerequisites for airline hires. Do they make a difference?…in emergencies???

    The change in Part 135 minimums for non ab-initio applicants has done little or nothing to improve safety. It did financially squeeze some very competent and capable career minded pilots out of the pipeline to the left front seat. (thanks chuck.)(f.u.) His feel-good legislation:*We’re doing something about it!*

    Reply
  13. Carolinian

    But, but Nader made Al Gore lose in 2000. Good to see him out of the shadows (he has a podcst BTW).

    While Boeing deserves every form of condemnation and Muilenberg should resign I do think the facts that were all laid out in that should-be-Pulitzer-winning Seattle Times series are being stretched a bit. The problem seems to be, not that the plane is prone to fall out of the sky, but that its handling characteristics differ from the earlier, ubiquitous, 737 models. MCAS is the defective part, and Boeing will pay plenty…

    Reply
      1. Tom

        Florida’s presidential election in 2000 was expected to be close and likely to be decisive in the electoral college vote. Nader was a fairly popular third-party candidate for president in that election. Many supporters of Gore over Bush pleaded for Nader to exit that race and ask his supporters to vote for Gore. He did neither. In the end the margin of Bush’s win in Florida was tiny, if it existed at all, so there was reason to be angry at Nader, as I was at the time, since if he had quit the race in that state, Gore would very likely have become president instead of Bush.

        If you’re into counterfactual teleology then you might say Nader’s stubborn vanity therefore led to the Iraq and Afghan wars. I don’t but it’s worth being aware that some people do.

        Reply
        1. GF

          I can’t find the link right now; but, it stated that after close study, most of the voters who voted for Nadar would not have voted for Gore and would have just sat out the election resulting in an even more pronounced victory for Bush. Gore’s defeat came from his inability to win his home state of TN.

          Reply
    1. EoH

      Concurrence and causation are not the same.

      The claim ignores other factors. Gore’s lackadaisical campaign, for one, and its poor response to the BushCheney campaign’s misuse of the legal system to stop the Florida recount.

      It’s not Gore’s fault the Supreme Court’s conservative majority chose to not let the FL supreme court determine what FL law means, and chose to decide the election itself. But his response to the Florida debacle was weak, like his campaign. That might be one reason so many people voted for Nader. That’s on Al and on BushCheney.

      Reply
  14. Nels Nelson

    Some additional information and clarification about the Corvair.

    The Corvair had a rear mounted engine and rear wheel drive. This is a poor design from a handling perspective as the rear weight bias produces a pendulum effect making the Corvair prone to oversteer. This tendency was exacerbated by the Corvair’s swing axle independent rear suspension with its inherent camber changes as the wheel moved up and down. These characteristics of the Corvair were deadly in that while cornering if you let off the accelerator, the engine brakes the rear wheels creating a condition called “throttle lift oversteer”. Under this situation the counterintutive reaction should be to put your foot on the accelerator and not the brakes. Some of you may recall that comedian Ernie Kovacs was killed when his Corvair spun off the road in wet weather and hit a utility pole.

    A paradox here is that the Porsche 911 has a design very similar to the Corvair, rear wheel drive, rear mounted engine and rear weight bias and is praised for its handling. The Corvair was sometimes referred to as a poor man’s 911. It too was prone to severe and violent oversteer if the throttle was lifted while cornering but in the case of the 911 it was expected that the driver know that while cornering your foot stayed on the accelerator. As the horsepower of 911s increased over the years the tendency to oversteer was tamed by fitting larger tires on the rear wheels. With the advent of technologies like antilock braking systems ,traction control and advanced computers employing torque vectoring to control vehicle stablity, cars today do have their versions of MCAS and the Porsche can be referred to as a triumph of engineering over design.

    Reply
    1. marku52

      The 911 had pivots at both ends of the stub axles. It would lift throttle oversteer (boy would it lift throttle oversteer -lots of fun if you knew what you were doing), but it would not do the jacking rear-end lift that the corvair (pivots only at the differential end of the half shaft) would do.

      Oddly, the VW bug had the exact same layout but Ralph never went after it.

      Reply
  15. EoH

    Nader is right to point out the design flaws, which seem to have the potential to cascade into failure.

    The new engine nacelles create unusual lift. Being placed forward of the center of lift, that causes the nose of the aircraft to rotate vertically upward. If uncorrected, that would cause the aircraft inappropriately to rise in altitude and/or to approach a stall.

    The nacelle-induced lift increases with an increase in engine thrust. That increases speed and/or reduces the time the pilot has to react and to correct an inappropriate nose-up attitude.

    Boeing seemed unable to correct that design problem through changes in the aircraft’s shape or control surfaces. It corrected it, instead, by having the computer step in to fly the aircraft back into the appropriate attitude. Works when it works.

    But Boeing seems to have forgotten a CompSci 101 problem: shit in, shit out. If the sensors feeding the computer report bad data, the computer will generate a bad solution. Boeing also seems to have designed the s/w to reset after manual attitude correction by the pilot, forcing a correction loop the pilots would not always win.

    Boeing elected not to inform aircraft purchasers or their flight crews of their automated fix to their new aircraft’s inherent instability problem. Murphy’s Law being what it is – if something can go wrong, it will – the pilots should have been made aware of the recommended fix so that when something went wrong it, they would have a chance of fixing it with a routine response.

    Boeing elected not to do that. In the short run, it avoided the need for expensive additional pilot training. In the long run, Boeing would have hoped to increase sales. When hoping for the best, it is normal practice to plan for the worst. Boeing seems not to have done that either.

    Reply
  16. The Heretic

    All this talk of CEO and top managment resignation…. honestly they probably don’t care. They have made millions, if not tens of millions of dollars on bonuses; they can retire once they walk out the door. To change the behaviour of the C-suite you must affect the C-suite directly, charge convict them with at least criminal negligence or worse.. A drunk driver who causes the accident will most likley go to jail if someone dies in the accident, how come a CEO and his mgmt team, can wilfully go against decades of engineering and aviation best practices that are codified, and still only have to resign??

    Reply
  17. Pat

    Reality check. Even with all this news…. BA closed at:

    $379.05 29 April 2019
    $342.79 31 August 2018

    Yeap the stock price is up from before the crashes. There are good reasons for the Boeing board to be indifferent – there is no punishment.

    Reply

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