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Beyond pilot trash talk, 737 Max documents reveal how intensely Boeing focused on cost

Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

He's worried because the airline believes it needs to allocate two days of training per pilot, including a two-night hotel stay and a per diem payment at one of the few cities with a Max simulator.

In the exchanges that follow, Boeing employees point out that "Airbus is throwing money" at airlines that are prepared to flip from the 737 to the Airbus A320neo. They offer the assurance that the transition training for a pilot to move from the previous 737 to a Max will not be two days, but two hours on a computer, on the pilot's own time.

"We can say it will be zero dollars in crew salary cost for offline time," a Boeing employee tells the sales director.

When Indonesian carrier Lion Air in 2017 asked for simulator training for its pilots, apparently at the suggestion of the country's regulator, known as DGCA, Forkner scrambled to convince the airline that it shouldn't do so.

He approached DGCA and argued that other regulators didn't require sim training, so why should Indonesia.

This manipulation by Boeing of both its airline customer and a foreign regulator looks damning in hindsight, especially when the first crash was a Lion Air jet.

Simulator training might well have gone some way to compensating for the over-reliance on cockpit automation and a lack of manual flying experience by pilots at some low-cost carriers overseas, which has emerged as an issue after the two crashes.

And just this week, Boeing conceded as much when it reversed course and recommended simulator training for all pilots before the Max returns to service.

Resisting system upgrades

The documents also show that the pressure to make little of the differences between the Max and the previous model extended to certification of the aircraft, including systems important to safety.

One safety upgrade proposed for the Max that would have greatly improved the jet's air data systems was called synthetic airspeed. Engineers including Curtis Ewbank, who later filed an internal ethics complaint, believed this could have overcome the vulnerability due to MCAS's dependence on a single angle of attack sensor.

The documents show this was rejected because it would "jeopardize the program directive" that there should be no new systems that would trigger a requirement for simulator training.

Another safety upgrade, called Roll Command Alerting Systems (RCAS), was introduced for the Max to alert the pilots to an excessive bank angle that the autopilot might not cope with. However, again to minimize differences, as it was developing the Max Boeing introduced RCAS as a new feature first on the previous 737 NG model, and encouraged airlines taking the Max to have at least one earlier model 737 with RCAS in their fleet so that then they could say there's no difference between the two models.

And in relation to certification of RCAS, the emails show that Boeing employees discussed how to minimize this new crew alert to the FAA so as not to raise concerns that pilots might need simulator training on what to do if the alert light comes on.

One message notes how the alert will most likely come on if an engine goes out, and suggests that the recovery from that needs to be sold to the FAA "as a very intuitive basic pilot skill."

 

"I fear that skill is not very intuitive any more with younger pilots and those who have become too reliant on automation," a colleague responded.

"Probably true," replied the first Boeing pilot. "But it's the box we're painted into with the (no simulator) requirements."

In a later email, Forkner said he was fairly sure the FAA's Aircraft Evaluation Group would want to require some training on RCAS in a simulator. "We are going to push back very hard on this, and will likely need support at the highest levels when it comes time for the final negotiation."

Failure to avoid simulator training because of RCAS would be a "planet-killer for the Max," he wrote.

In the end, he and Boeing got their way.

After the document release Thursday, a Boeing official insisted that the company's "overriding imperative in designing and developing the Max was to ensure that the airplane design was safe."

He said the objective to avoid simulator training "was subordinate to this safety imperative."

Yet soon after the Max was certified in 2018, when a series of internal emails addressed why the Max simulator program had proved so troublesome and expensive, the employees in the conversation pointed to a "culture" that prioritized cost-cutting over everything else.

"We put ourselves in this position by picking the lowest cost supplier (a reference to TRU) and signing up to impossible schedules," wrote a Boeing employee. "We have a senior leadership team that understand very little about the business and yet are driving us to certain objectives."

"Time and time again, we are inundated with Boeing material specifying quality is key -- this clearly is not the case in any of the decisions that are made," wrote another. "Until an open and frank discussion takes place, the same errors, wasted opportunities, and financial losses will continually be absorbed."

Corrected: The system upgrade called RCAS was introduced on newly-built 737 NGs ahead of its installation on the 737 Max. An earlier version of this story mistakenly said it was "retrofitted" to older 737 NGs.

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