Boeing, the 737 Max, and the Accountability Challenge

What does accountable leadership, in both the public and private sectors, look like after a major disaster? We are in the process of finding out.

Following two fatal crashes of its Boeing 737 Max jets earlier this year, the aviation giant Boeing has settled the first of multiple lawsuits from families who lost loved ones on those flights. According to Reuters, the families involved in the first settlement will each receive $1.2 million, in addition to payments from a massive compensation fund set up to benefit relatives of those who died. Dozens of lawsuits are still outstanding. But their accountability has not been properly addressed.

On the off chance that you have not been following this, here is a quick recap: the first 737 Max crash occurred in Indonesia in October of last year; the second took place in Ethiopia in March of 2019. The two disasters claimed the lives of 346 people in total and raised troubling questions about sensor readings that adversely affected a critical flight control system, causing the plane’s computers to calculate its position inaccurately, resulting in faulty readings, multiple alert warnings, and, eventually, in a nosedive. Regulatory authorities worldwide grounded the 737 Max, the guidance and safety systems of which are now the subject of close scrutiny.

Let me address the most obvious issue first. Yes, Boeing is on the ethical and financial hook for these disasters, and that is as it should be. There are incontestable reports that the company introduced a key automated system, known as MCAS, into the plane’s design without making reference to it in the operations manual or requiring training for it as a separate element. (The FAA, responsible for regulating such questions, agreed with Boeing’s approach here.) Boeing overlooked or minimized the possibility that multiple warnings related to MCAS going off simultaneously within the cockpit could disorient and confuse some pilots.

Translation: Boeing screwed up. The FAA screwed up. They made commitments to the flying public about the safety of the 737 Max, and they fell short of fulfilling those commitments. They fell short on their accountability. Both need to step up and fix a wide range of internal and external problems, and Boeing needs to ensure both that it compensates victims fairly, and that this never happens again.

But how can Boeing, or anyone else, ensure that these kinds of disasters are not repeated? This is the big question and it is a question of accountability.

It is tempting to assume that technical fixes can resolve any and every problem in these post-disaster situations. But in this case, that assumption is not warranted. A major part of this story here remains largely unaddressed in media reports: the uncomfortable realities that the pilots in question were not trained or certified to the high standards of US pilots, and that the low recruiting and training standards for pilots based in Indonesia, Africa, and other emerging markets were also contributing factors to both disasters.

Not only does Boeing need to assure us all that their design is top-notch, that their equipment is top-notch, and that their ergonomics are top-notch…they need to move beyond all that and find a way to assure us all that the pilots who fly these planes are properly qualified and trained. When a carrier buys a plane from Boeing, or anyone else, that purchase needs to be made conditional on a program that ensures that only highly qualified pilots are assigned to fly the plane commercially.  And the FAA needs to require that this is what happens from this point forward. If that means Boeing misses out on a lucrative market, so be it

Accountability is keeping your commitments to people. Specifically, this means upholding:

  • A commitment to the truth
  • A commitment to a safe space
  • A commitment to stand by you when all hell breaks loose
  • And, a commitment to always do what is right.

Both Boeing and the FAA came up short on their accountability because they failed to keep these commitments. They failed to put the needs of people first, and ultimately they valued money over people.

Where are the regulators’ commitments to the safety of the passengers, regardless of what country they come from?

Where is Boeing’s commitment to the safety of the passengers?

If the commitment does not take the form of changing the status quo, so that unqualified pilots are not allowed into the cockpit in the first place, it is meaningless. There are still big problems to fix here that a redesign simply will not address.

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