The Boeing just-so story

Boeing employees assemble 787s in North Charleston. (File Photo: Reuters)
Boeing employees assemble 787s in North Charleston. (File Photo: Reuters)

Summary

Aviation romantics aren’t helping a troubled company get back on track.

The latest Boeing uproar belies the potted story line. Instead of bringing shame by abandoning the glories of American manufacturing, in its 787 factory Boeing was inventing new manufacturing to build airliners from carbon fibers rather than traditional aluminum.

A whistleblowing engineer testifies that in fitting together these planes, Boeing departed from its estimated tolerances and force limits as it struggled to gain experience in assembling carbon-fiber airliners.

Boeing says the resulting fuselages will stand three times their expected 30-year-life of multiple daily takeoffs and landings. Unless the company fudged its own data and studies to reach this conclusion, this is the kind of decision we pay Boeing to make.

One could also envision an innovative journalism in which facts and narrative don’t proceed independently. Exactly the same themes being used today to disparage Boeing were used two decades ago to disparage its decision not to build a 747 successor.

Making and mating aluminum fuselage sections is an established, perhaps obsolescing, discipline. Boeing has since become a more complicated company. Its decision 20 years ago to spin off its 737 fuselage plant, now said to reek of controversy, was actually a sensible way to focus management and shareholders on this narrow art.

In fact, no fatal accidents have stemmed from the 737 factory’s well-aired travails. Two fatal 737 MAX crashes are down to Boeing’s software design. A 1978 factory mistake did cause the catastrophic failure of a Japan Airlines 747 in 1985, but that was during the period critics now paint as Boeing’s golden age.

The romantic critique overlooks that a modern airplane is an amalgamation of complex systems impossible for one company to design and build. Indeed, the decentralized interaction of hundreds of organizations is what makes air travel so safe and cheap. It allows millions of ordinary humans to supply us this service via in-built learning and redundancies without having to be superhuman or transcend the sausage-factory realities of all human endeavors.

In manufacturing, you get the behavior you reward. Boeing needs to get back to rewarding manufacturing teams that are quick and faultless, rather than merely quick.

But a gauzier critique amounts to suggesting that to restore one discipline Boeing must abandon another. It was Boeing that wisely resisted competing with Airbus’s giant A380 when market studies showed travelers preferred smaller long-haul jets that bypass crowded international hubs. It was Boeing that resisted (until it didn’t) launching the new 737 MAX when Airbus announced an updated A320 despite a five-year backlog for the existing model. (Airbus apparently wanted to spoil the business case for a new plane from Canada’s Bombardier, which Airbus then acquired in a fire sale.)

Boeing’s two problems, fixing its production mess and deciding whether to launch a 737 successor, should be treated separately, not as some combined test of Boeing’s moral compass and corporate manhood.

Boeing’s outgoing chief put the price tag of a new plane at $50 billion, pooh-poohed by the romantics as a killjoy exaggeration. But almost everything from materials and robotics to climate regulation and the global politics of aircraft certification has grown more complicated since the 787 was first noodled in the late ’90s.

And Boeing has another business that needs attention, its defense business, which—at least as long as 737 production is slowed by scandals—accounts for half its revenue.

The case for increased defense investment may, ipso facto, be the case against a new civilian jet. Across Asia, driver of a traffic boom lasting two generations, today’s China-related tensions start to make the future look a lot less certain.

Airbus has its challenges too. Hundreds of A320s are grounded owing to what the company calls engine durability rather than reliability issues. In a segue to end all segues, the A320 has also experienced more than 50 cockpit blackout and rebooting episodes, leading to airliners becoming unidentified flying objects on military radars, a quirk antiproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis used in a scenario for accidental nuclear war involving the U.S. and North Korea. Would Truman or Eisenhower have sought a Korean armistice if they knew 60 years later Kim Il Sung’s grandson would threaten to incinerate American cities with nuclear ICBMs?

Boeing is a key contractor for a much-needed upgrade of America’s highly iffy midcourse missile defense interceptor. Whooping through a simultaneous big commercial-jet investment would bring risks, some of which are less obvious than others. America has other needs. Boeing and the Air Force cite the same “labor instability," “workforce challenges" and supply-chain strains for delays in meeting Boeing’s defense contracts that Boeing and its critics cite for its 737 troubles. How to allocate American industrial capital between civilian and military needs is perhaps a question best not left to the romantics.

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