Boeing says it’s working to absorb lessons from the 737 MAX crashes and improve safety

SEATTLE — As Boeing tries to emerge from the four-year shadow of two deadly 737 MAX crashes, executives this week described diverse efforts to improve its safety culture and avert future airplane accidents.

The company’s Chief Aerospace Safety Officer Mike Delaney outlined progress toward sweeping reforms in how Boeing operates and how it supports airlines.

Boeing has sent experienced pilots across the globe to embed with airline customers and enhanced its training courses for pilots and aircraft maintenance mechanics.

The company is mining flight data to assess and identify accident risks before anything goes wrong. And it’s preparing an internal education campaign for employees — from the executive suites to the engineering design offices to the factory floor — about lesson learned from the crashes.

A new MAX operated by Lion Air crashed in Indonesia in October 2018. Just over four months later, a second new jet crashed in Ethiopia, with 346 people killed in the two accidents.

Delaney suggested engineers who worked on development of the MAX are still coming to terms with how Boeing failures contributed to the crashes.

“Not everybody has perfect information,” Delaney said. “Not everybody was in every meeting. Not everybody was in every part of the business.”


As part of its culture revamp and push to engage employees, Boeing is launching an internal interactive website — a “digital safety experience” — that will provide deep information on all previous airline accidents, including the lessons learned from each.

And it’s developing a video for employees specifically about the MAX crashes, although what exactly will be included is still in progress.

“When I talk to people about the 737 MAX, I’m not interested in atonement. I’m not interested in retribution,” Delaney said. “I’m interested in making sure that the Boeing Co., when it designs its next airplane, does not make a fundamental engineering mistake or program management mistake that was contributory to having an unsafe condition on an airplane that leads to an accident.

“We’re trying to figure out how do we go forward and also make sure we learned the lessons from the last few years,” Delaney added.

Support for pilots

In a news briefing with Delaney, Lacey Pittman, Boeing vice president of the Global Aerospace Safety Initiative, described the company’s moves to extend its partnerships with airline customers.

Historically, Boeing has sent out field service representatives — maintenance technicians and engineers — to airlines around the world to help fix technical problems with their airplanes.

Now, it is also offering support to flight crews, whose flying experience varies widely across the globe.

Boeing has hired 125 highly experienced pilots as “flight operations representatives.” Some of them are based in the U.S. and some are embedded with airlines around the globe to help flight crews that fly Boeing jets understand all aspects of the job.

Delaney said the pilot shortage is holding back further hiring.

“There are some challenges with trying to grow this to the scale and size we want,” he said. “Pilots are a scarce commodity.”

Most of those recruited are veteran pilots who can no longer fly for an airline because they’re older than 65.

Nevertheless, Pittman said the new flight operations reps engaged with 60 airlines last year.

She said Boeing is also building safety support teams to be stationed in six regions of the world.

“They’re living in the regions, and they’re connected with the regulators and the operators in those regions,” Pittman said, adding that these teams will “ensure that we are at the table as we talk about safety strategies in each region of the world.”

Additionally, Boeing has developed new pilot training courses that go beyond technical flying ability to include communication between pilots on the flight deck, leadership skills and both automatic and manual flight path management.

The MAX accidents highlighted the importance of training pilots to work together to handle flight control emergencies.

Training courses for the 737 and the 787 are rolled out, and Boeing is preparing new courses for its other jet models.


Analytics to reveal risks

Vishwa Uddanwadiker, Boeing vice president of aerospace safety analytics, showcased a new visual platform Boeing has developed to analyze operational flight data and identify trends and risks.

At a regular weekly safety meeting, Boeing’s senior technical and safety executives study the platform dashboard.

To illustrate how data mining can uncover risks, Uddanwadiker described a Boeing analysis of runway overruns — when planes overshoot the runway or veer off — that highlighted an unexpected number of incidents on longer runways where it shouldn’t be happening.

“We found that even if they touch down on the right spot, there are close calls due to auto brake settings or just operational discipline issues,” Uddanwadiker said.

Boeing is now working with its operational and engineering teams to see how this can be addressed.

The company’s engineers also devised a machine learning algorithm to analyze the service difficulty reports that airlines file with the Federal Aviation Administration about in-flight issues, specifically reports of cabin depressurization, to see if there are patterns that could reveal why these incidents occur.

“That algorithm is now live on the FAA servers, looking at every service difficulty report,” Uddanwadiker said.

Boeing is also using data mining internally to assess quality issues within the factories.


“What happens if you have too much overtime? What happens if you have too much churn in the team?” Uddanwadiker said. That data can reveal the impact on quality and then on safety.

Promoting safety to front-line employees

Uddanwadiker and Delaney described the efforts underway to reach out to every Boeing employee and convey the necessary safety underpinnings of their work.

At a building on Boeing’s Everett site, the company has a center set up to highlight lessons learned from past air accidents. To provide more access, it is launching a website on that theme for employees.

The website presents a timeline of all air accidents for which a final investigation report exists. Users can drill down to obtain details on any single crash.

For example, an employee might click on one of the most well-known accidents in aviation history: the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 in 1985.

A faulty repair to a bulkhead by Boeing mechanics years earlier caused a midair structural failure and decompression that left the pilots with no control. When the 747 jumbo jet crashed into a mountain, 520 people were killed.

The website provides first a visual map with links to other air accidents with related causes.

The user will find the FAA document of lessons learned, the National Transportation Safety Board safety recommendations, the accident report from the Japanese authority, the FAA airworthiness directive that was issued after the crash, and all the safety design practices that were put in place by Boeing to ensure it could never happen again.

Uddanwadiker said all Boeing employees will have access by early June.

And that JAL Flight 123 accident is the subject of the first of a series of videos Boeing is preparing for employees to convey the story and its lessons.

Uddanwadiker said the MAX crashes will be the subject of a second video currently being produced.

Delaney said “there’s 150,000 Boeing employees and very few of them actually know what really factually happened in the development of the MAX.”


He described the well-established view in the public mind of what caused the MAX crashes as “two-dimensional.”

He was referring to the flawed flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that Boeing added to the MAX to compensate for the extra lift in certain maneuvers due to the jet’s much larger engines.

Engineers working during early development of the jet to stabilize the flight control system used data from wind tunnel tests in 2011 and 2012, Delaney said, and their decisions from what was known then were “very rational.”

It was only after the crashes, in 2019, that those decisions were critiqued.

“As time goes on, people can now look back and say, ‘OK, I was in the meeting when we looked at the data. I was in the meeting when we looked at the financial statements.’ Or ‘I was involved in what happened between the first accident and the second,’ " Delaney said. “But that takes time and distance to have that conversation.”

Boeing is now free of most of the legal consequences of the MAX crashes. The federal government dropped criminal charges against the company, and most of the families of those who died have accepted settlements in the civil liability cases.


Just a few families continue to fight the civil cases, including that of Samya Rose Stumo, who died in the Ethiopian crash.

Samya’s father, Michael Stumo, on Wednesday dismissed Delaney as Boeing’s “chief spin officer.”

The MAX crashes had multiple causes, and it’s true that the pilots might have handled the emergencies better.

Boeing’s leadership has publicly admitted only that the design of MCAS made false assumptions about how pilots would react to an unexpected and false activation of the system.

It has never admitted responsibility for other contributing factors central to the accident, including:

- The decision not to offer pilots simulator training on the MAX and its discouragement of airlines such as Lion Air that asked for simulator training.

- The flawed engineering design of MCAS that allowed it to activate with the failure of a single sensor and to continue activating repeatedly when countered by the pilot.

- Boeing’s lack of clear communication on MCAS to the FAA. Information about the system was disclosed during certification in a fragmented way that escaped notice.

Will Boeing’s video on the MAX crashes comprehensively address the full set of contributing factors and present a deep, three-dimensional analysis of lessons learned?

Spokesperson Jessica Kowal said Tuesday the video is being developed.

“It’s premature to say what’s going to be in it,” Kowal said.