Top of Mind Thursday April 4, 2019: Turbulent Skies for Boeing

Top of Mind Thursday





It now appears that last month’s Ethiopian Air crash of a Boeing 737 MAX8 may have been caused by the same issue that downed a Lion Air plane less than six months earlier.
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Flying is still by far the safest mode of transportation. Boeing is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft, and millions of people fly in their planes each year and land safely.

The problem is that when an aircraft malfunctions, the consequences are severe. In this case, over 300 people are dead, likely because a new automated feature engaged when it should not have, and the planes’ flight crews were unable to override it to prevent a crash.

Does this mean we are now over-automating? Not necessarily. The issue here appears to be profit, not technology. Boeing pushed through an accelerated approval for the new aircraft and told key customers only minimal retraining would be required. In some cases, pilots received that training on an iPad only. Obviously, that was not sufficient.

Boeing compounded their error by not moving more quickly to assess why  the first crash occurred, and to take steps so it would not happen again. After the second crash, they waited to ground these planes until aviation authorities in virtually ever country in the world forced them to do so.

This is what can happen when you take the quickest, least expensive path to market in a situation where the consequences of product failure are so severe. If there is a catastrophic failure, it’s important to move quickly and decisively to understand what happened and do what’s necessary to reassure customers and the public.

In 1982, seven people died from Tylenol tablets that had been laced with cyanide. Johnson & Johnson took quick decisive action to pull the product off the shelves and to institute new, tamperproof packaging–even though the contamination had happened outside of their control. As a result, both their product sales and their stock price quickly bounced back.

Boeing should expect major turbulence in their business for the foreseeable future because they didn’t take this approach. Maybe they should take two Tylenol while considering how to get to a calmer altitude.

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