The sad saga of the Boeing 737 Max has been a slow-burning corporate, engineering, regulatory, human-interest and public-relations nightmare for going on six months now—with no end in sight. The magnitude of Boeing’s deadly foul-up is a frequent topic of conversation in airliner cockpits, and considerable ink has been spilled over the subject in both aviation and general media. Now, I’m not an aeronautical engineer, and I have yet to fly the 737, but quite a few of my friends are current or former 737NG pilots at various U.S. and European airlines. The general consensus is that the Max was simply one stretch too many of an airplane that had already been shoehorned into an ever-expanding number of sizes and roles until it barely resembled the well-considered original design.
The bigger story here, I think, is the decline of Boeing’s reputation for engineering excellence since its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas. Since the merger, not one but two new Boeing airliners have been grounded by the FAA, the first such groundings since McDonnell Douglas’ own DC-10 in 1979. The Boeing 787, while a fine design, has suffered many quality-control problems stemming from a complex outsourcing scheme that only an MBA could love, and a union-busting move to South Carolina, bypassing the experienced and costly Seattle workforce. The most serious flaw was a subcontractor’s defective lithium-ion batteries that were prone to thermal runaway and fire