Home / Opinion / Columns /  Boeing’s 737 Max crisis cannot be pinned on a single manager

The first indictment in the Boeing 737 Max crisis should not be the last. A federal grand jury has charged the company’s former chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner, with deceiving US Federal Aviation Administration officials in their evaluation of the Max and scheming to defraud the plane maker’s customers. Forkner is the only one to be indicted thus far in connection with crashes of Max that prompted a two-year grounding globally of the best-selling jet. Boeing’s market value remains about half of what it was before that; the damage to its reputation and that of the FAA is immeasurable.

Forkner, a mid-level manager whose job included coordinating with the regulator on pilot-training information, pleaded not guilty; his lawyer said he was being made a scapegoat. The crashes have been linked to flight-control software, Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), originally designed to guard against an aerodynamic stall but instead often forced the planes to nosedive and set off a cacophony of alerts that overwhelmed pilots. The FAA excluded its details from manuals and training modules because officials believed it turned on only in extreme situations. The indictment says Forkner allegedly failed to inform regulators when he learnt that the scope of MCAS had been expanded for activation under relatively normal flying conditions.

A key sales pitch for the Max was that pilots already well-versed in flying older 737 models would need little extra training. The new MCAS may have led the FAA to require more extensive training, which would have been costly. The indictment’s details aren’t flattering for Forkner, but the idea that he was operating as some kind of rogue employee and should alone shoulder all this blame defies logic. The indictment says Forkner was aware that Boeing had agreed to compensate at least one airline customer if the FAA required more significant pilot training. It doesn’t say he made that decision himself. Nor did he elect to expand the scope of MCAS in the first place, without the kind of fixes that Boeing has since made to get the Max airborne again. He may not even have been properly informed of the rework. “I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)," he wrote to a colleague after he seemingly stumbled across the changes in a simulated test flight.

It wasn’t one person behind this, it was a culture that encouraged such behaviour and a company that lacked the kind of inter-divisional coordination and quality controls necessary to churn out safe aeroplanes.

The language in the US Department of Justice’s statement on Forkner echoes that of a January deal with Boeing to settle a criminal charge of conspiracy to defraud the US government with essentially a slap on the wrist. The deferred prosecution agreement requires Boeing to cooperate with investigators, enhance reporting on internal controls and meet routinely with regulators to prove it’s doing all it can to discourage future infractions. But the Department concluded that Boeing didn’t need an independent compliance monitor, in part because its “misconduct was neither pervasive across the organization, nor undertaken by a large number of employees, nor facilitated by senior management."

Really? Forkner left Boeing in July 2018. The first Max crash happened in October that year. It took Boeing many months after the second accident in March 2019 to take full accountability for its role in the crashes. Boeing repeatedly pushed overly optimistic deadlines for the Max’s return, and it wasn’t until January 2020 that Boeing finally recommended simulator training for pilots.

Despite the crash, its then CEO Dennis Muilenburg was paid a total of $23.4 million in 2018. He was ousted in December 2019 but has re-emerged as the chief of New Vista Acquisition Corp, a special purpose acquisition company that raised more than $200 million earlier this year to hunt for deals in the space or air mobility industry.

It’s worth noting that it’s possibly also in the US government’s interest to paint the Max crisis as the work of rogue employees; a full-scale criminal prosecution of Boeing at the corporate level may have complicated the company’s ability to continue receiving federal contracts. Boeing is one of the top US defence contractors and America’s only maker of large commercial jets. Casting blame on the Boeing employees who communicated with the FAA also diverts attention from why regulators failed to probe more thoroughly. The Wall Street Journal has reported that officials elsewhere within the FAA knew about key changes to MCAS, even if those whom Forkner interacted with on pilot training did not.

The 737 Max crisis reflects systemic breakdowns in company culture, management oversight and aeroplane safety regulation. If there is a primary villain in this mess, it’s not Mark Forkner.

Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies

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