Boeing’s 90 Day Deadline from the FAA Follows Thousands of Days of Doing Not Much

February 28, 2024 / 2 Comments

There’s something very theatrical about the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement on Wednesday that Boeing had 90 days to clean up its act.  It sounds serious. It sounds tough. And that is probably just what the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Mike Whitaker had in mind.

After a day-long meeting with Boeing executives, including company CEO, Dave Calhoun on Tuesday, Whitaker issued a statement saying that the planemaker “must take a fresh look at every aspect of their quality-control process and ensure that safety is the company’s guiding principle.” Whitaker gave Boeing 90 days to come up with a plan because the FAA’s safety standards were “non-negotiable”.

Kudos to the FAA for finally making it clear to Boeing who is the regulator and who is the regulated.

Whitaker’s face-to-face with Boeing brass came just days after a year-long review of Boeing by an expert panel tasked with seeing just how effective the company has been in managing safety in its design and manufacturing of airplanes.  The report was mixed.  You can read it here.

The experts gave Boeing sixty days to fix the shortcomings it found. But Whitaker cut that in half.  Still, before getting too excited about how swiftly Boeing’s problems will be solved let me recap for you the many, many days gone by because its a whole lot more than the FAA’s 3-month deadline or even the experts’ 180.

It was nearly five years or one thousand eight hundred and 14 days ago, that Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed outside of Addis Ababa, becoming the second 737 Max to crash in less than five months.

One thousand nine hundred 46 days ago, LionAir flight 610 went down in the Java Sea, killing all 189 aboard.

And it was two thousand ninety days ago that Ed Pierson, who was then a then-senior manager at Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton, wrote to his boss warning that deteriorating factory conditions would lead to “inadvertently embedding safety hazards into our airplanes.”

All of which is to say, no, to ask, what has Boeing been doing all this time? And what has the FAA been doing? And if we are reduced to shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Better late than never,” let me tell you about more wasted days.

Nine years ago, (32 hundred days more or less) the FAA issued a new rule to airlines. To move safety to the next level, carriers would be required to start using an organized set of procedures that together create a safety management system. Known as SMS, this might sound to the outside world like just another addition to the alphabet soup of aviation acronyms but SMS really was something to embrace. Even before the rule was put into effect many airlines were already using it. Let me repeat that. Airlines started creating their SMS programs before the FAA made it a requirement.

SMS has some core principles. It expands responsibility for eliminating hazards to every person in the organization from the manager who stops to pick up and properly dispose of litter on the hangar floor, to the secretary who corrects a typo that makes an essential safety instruction unclear. With SMS everybody understands that predicting and therefore averting a bad outcome is preferable to reacting to it.

In February 2011, or 47 hundred days ago, I was recruited by the International Air Transport Association to help several airlines in the developing world implement SMS. You may think I am trying to show you just how long safety management systems have been in use and yes, that is partially what I am getting at. More significant was the instruction given to me, and the other safety specialists working with IATA on this program. We were told that no meeting could take place with airline staff until the chief executive introduced us. That person, standing by my side would make it clear to all that the safety mandate came from the top. That was the secret sauce.

Curiously, a revolutionary program for elevating safety that has been around for more than a decade is something Boeing – ostensibly at the top of the safety food chain – is having difficulty with. As the panel of experts reviewed the past 365 days of SMS activity at Boeing it got assurances but no documentary evidence of the company’s “foundational commitment to safety.”

This is a problem because SMS “obligates organizations to manage safety with the same level of priority that other core business processes are managed.” Or as IATA’s SMS evangelists were instructed, power comes from having the CEO by your side.

In what one would charitably call a gaffe, or more accurately cite as more “safety theater”, the experts discovered that Boeing revised its overarching SMS manual between 2022 and 2023. The manual underwent a “Major Rewrite”. But the only revision was the addition of that description. The rest of the document was unchanged.

Following Whitaker’s announcement of Boeing’s 90-day deadline, Boeing’s Calhoun released a statement of his own.

“We have a clear picture of what needs to be done,” he said, adding that the company “will develop the comprehensive action plan with measurable criteria that demonstrates the profound change that Administrator Whitaker and the FAA demand.”

He’s got 90 days to do it. It is a good thing there are dozens of aviation companies with thousands of days of experience for Boeing to draw upon.

Categories: Flying Lessons

2 responses to “Boeing’s 90 Day Deadline from the FAA Follows Thousands of Days of Doing Not Much”

  1. Jerry Allen says:

    An observation from someone who spent eight years on SMS design, implementation and assessment in domestic and international organizations (FAA, EASA, TC, LAR etc.). “Safety theater” as you so aptly phrased is alive and well. Unfortunately the regulator in this case itself doesn’t understand what a successfully implemented SMS should look like or drive…safety performance improvement, demonstrable risk reduction, and positive safety culture/safety climate changes that can be measured over time. Theatrical and somewhat sad.

  2. Julian Marsano says:

    I very much hope that posts like this will be widely-shared and read by people who are in a position to do some good.

    Watching a proud company spin out like this is an emotionally wrenching experience. As an avgeek, I often used to say to people who wanted to know why I wore Boeing shirts, ‘It’s like rooting for your home team. You have the Red Sox. I don’t care about baseball. I have Boeing.’

    Now I have a drawer filled with Boeing gear I look at it every day when I get dressed and I think, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do with this stuff?’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter to Win

Want to receive some free swag from Christine? Sign up for the mailing list!