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How Invisible Waves Have Changed the World

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Boeing: “We have no documentation on bolts”

2024-03-14 [Petri]

Boeing seems to be going from failure to failure.

This is very bad for the whole aviation industry as long as Boeing is the other half of the global duopoly of commercial jetliners.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has opened a criminal review on the Alaska Airlines incident, in which the door plug that was used to cover an unneeded fuselage area for an extra door got blown out after takeoff. The door was found on the ground, luckily not hitting anyone or anything.

While several investigations are still ongoing, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has scolded Boeing for not providing all relevant information regarding the recent incident: “Boeing has not provided us with the documents and information that we have requested numerous times over the past few months.”

Boeing does not seem to have any records on the maintenance work done for the door plug, and can’t even name the persons involved in the task.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has just completed an audit of both Boeing and its subcontractors, and found “systematic quality control issues” that Boeing has been made accountable to fix. One remedy that the FAA has suggested is assigning the overall quality control to an independent third party.

It is not a good sign when you are having a face-off with the regulators and inspectors that eventually decide on your flight worthiness status.

Therefore, from the aviation industry’s point of view, it is imperative to get Boeing back in line, and the FAA is rushing to change their former, overly cozy relationship into a true oversight model.

While the situation remains in flux, FAA has also put Boeing’s request of expanding the MAX production on hold.

Elsewhere, a Boeing Dreamliner owned by LATAM had an apparent control system blackout that sent 50 people to hospital in Auckland, and the much-touted upgrade of 777 appears to get further delays again.

[Update: despite the early reports on system failure on the LATAM flight, this case apparently was a combination of poor mechanical implementation and a human error. ]

Apart from another set of major impacts on reputation, both the Alaska Airlines case and the LATAM case will involve another round of costly lawsuits. Southwest reducing their capacity and referring to Boeing problems as the reason is also not a good sign: many airlines have been hit by MAX-related issues.

Now put yourself into the shoes of the CEO of a medium-sized airline that years ago decided to go all-in with the Boeing product range:

“If it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going” used to be the be catchy slogan.

The company had a pristine reputation. It was the aviation equivalence of “nobody who ever suggested buying IBM computers has been sacked”, which was the notorious slogan often used in the early IT context.

Roll forward a couple of decades: websites like kayak.com now offer filters to REMOVE flights that use specific airplane types, and this addition is driven by the recent history of Boeing’s 737 MAX series, which I have covered in several earlier posts.

CNN.com carried an article recently about a passenger who, despite having carefully chosen not to fly on a MAX, ended up facing a flight on one due to plane reallocation, only noticing the change after boarding. He elected to exit the plane and paid extra to get an alternative flight.

“If it’s Boeing, I’m not going” is now a reality for many potential passengers.

Approximately 50% airlines are between a rock and a hard place: commercial aviation is still a duopoly between Boeing and Airbus, and the demand for new, economical planes is so high that it would be impossible to replace a fleet using Boeing with Airbus. Not only the retraining costs would be enormous, but most importantly, there’s simply no production capacity from Airbus to provide the planes in such quantities.

Only the very largest airlines can afford to have a full mix of Boeing and Airbus in the midsize category.

Latest example of this is American Airlines, which, despite all negative publicity around Boeing, announced a pretty much 50/50 order between MAXes and A321 NEOs.

If you are late in the purchasing game past COVID, the NEO production is now sold out all the way to 2030. Hence, if you want to expand, MAX is pretty much your only option, whatever its reputation might be.

737 MAX is basically just a continuation of an airframe design from 1967, whereas A321 NEO hails from the original Airbus A320 plans from 1987.

A lot of development in aviation happened in those 20 years, including the fact that even the original Airbus A320-series was a fly-by-wire system: something that Boeing claimed as a "bad" feature in their counter-advertising for decades, only to have all of their jets from the 777-model onward to use the same system, in which the pilot has no direct linkage to the control surfaces.

The 20-year difference between the 737 and the A320 base models is most important in the sense of planned reuse of earlier approvals from both FAA and EASA: if you minimize fundamental changes between old models and the new one, you speed up the approval process, as you can skip parts of the testing. And as I have discussed earlier, 737 MAX was a major stretch in this sense, whereas A320-series was designed from ground up with this in mind.

And it is not just the MAX that has problems: as I mentioned, the latest 777X-model is about six years behind schedule. Its largest customer, Emirates, can expect to get the first plane whopping 14 years after ordering it.

Update: another recent hearing of a whistleblower paints a questionable image of Boeing's quality control.

So what alternatives there would be for Boeing?

China has its own mid-category plane production that may well grow to be a new player in this field: their “home-made” jet just recently had its first commercial flight outside of China. As a growing technological power, China has great ambitions in this market, and proven capacity to become a major producer.

Russia, in theory, could have manufacturing skills to match, but they had dropped out of this particular size category already before the Ukraine war, trying to make their mark in the regional airplane category.

The fact that they killed several purchasing team members from multiple Asian airline companies by flying a demo flight of their Sukhoi Superjet into a mountain in Indonesia did not really help their sales attempts in that category.

And naturally, after the invasion of Ukraine, Russia is cut out of pretty much anything high-tech: even if they somehow came out with plans for new mid-category planes, the chance of them getting crucial western components for those in the next decade or so is nil.

Therefore, the current duopoly is here to stay for at least another decade or so.

Unfortunately Boeing’s woes do not relate only to aviation: another duopoly has been formed in the space sector.

After the somewhat botched retirement of the Space Shuttle that left the US embarrassingly dependent on Russia for manned spaceflight, NASA awarded Commercial Crew Program projects for both Boeing and SpaceX.

Despite of Boeing getting considerably more money, the Boeing Starliner is yet to have a single manned flight completed, waiting for the first one to happen in May, 2024, while SpaceX has now had 13 [updated April 2024] manned flights with their Dragon capsule.

The most recent unmanned Starliner flight almost ended in a catastrophe due to seemingly trivial software issues.

Whether Boeing manages to get back in shape or not, it is already obvious that its history around the MAX program will become a business school case of poor management and dangerous prioritizing of profits over safety.

When big companies stumble, they have a tendency to fall hard.

And do not take just my word for it, after I had completed the story above, here’s another comprehensive review of their situation from CNN.

Permalink: https://bhoew.com/blog/en/155

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Alaska Airlines door plug had a premature landing [NTSB]

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You can purchase A Brief History of Everything Wireless: How Invisible Waves Have Changed the World from Springer or from Amazon US, CA, UK, BR, DE, ES, FR, IT, AU, IN, JP. For a more complete list of verified on-line bookstores by country, please click here.

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