Boeing: Still Flying Blind


The latest chaos with a Boeing 737 MAX reminds me again of the fallout when a company’s corporate culture begins to shift. I remember Mark Miller, a ski partner from long ago who had flown B-17s and B-29s in two wars and had just retired as the president of Boeing Aerospace.

Mark would talk about Boeing’s engineering culture, its focus on the fundamental nuts and bolts of building aircraft, and the critical importance of safe construction. Cost was secondary to getting that right — it had to be, given the risks of flying all those passengers.

But Boeing is a different company after several mergers and a shift to elevating stock price and lowering costs of production. Gone is the older culture that had built the company and its reputation, “I’m not going if it’s not Boeing.” Bloomberg investigative journalist Paul Robison captured this shift and its consequences in his book, Flying Blind, about the deadly crashes of two 737 MAX planes that took hundreds of lives.

That book, even though written a couple of years ago, gives a glimpse at the likely reasons behind Boeing’s current embarrassment — a door window that fell from the sky at 16,000 feet, leaving a gaping hole in the side of MAX filled with passengers.

The corporate shift is long story, started when Harry Stonecipher came from McDonnell-Douglas after its merger with Boeing. Stonecipher once said, “When people say I changed the culture of Boeing, that was the intent, so that it’s run like a business rather than a great engineering firm. It is a great engineering firm, but people invest in a company because they want to make money.”

There was the shift, the arguable cause in time of the MAX fiasco, in just two sentences. If you’ve lived here — especially in the age before Boeing shifted critical work to outside contractors and much construction to union-light South Carolina, and its headquarters out of Seattle to Chicago — Flying Blind is a must read. That change in the company’s internal culture has recently made vivid as the MAX door/window blew out in flight and landed on a Portland teacher’s lawn.

Mike James
Mike James
Mike James was a long-time anchor newscaster at KING TV.


  1. One of the sad stories in the “purchase” of McDonnell Douglas was that it took the Seattleness out of Boeing, the city whose values created the Boeing mystique. You could see it in the absence of Seattle figures on the Boeing board. Boeing used to have a small lobbying force in D.C., but now it is huge and the headquarters are moving from Chicago to D.C. That’s another aspect of the merger with McDonnell, which has feasted on Defense contracts.

  2. Much like the 80s Volvo culture, Boeing had that. My grandmother was retired of three Boeing sections, she would chang her name, reapply and go back to work till some pencil head caught her. My mom was leaving a very turbulent Denver to SeaTac ride and heard the pilots ::Thank God we were in a Boeing plane.:” Kinda the Eddie Bauer, Elmer Nordstom, Mackie, UPS, WeyerHauser—Bill Boeing’s mail planes to Alaska grew with WWII and the JetAge into the ethosof Seattle. The lines of being a business rather than a great engineering firm also would eplain education issues. Being a retired public school educator, I would writ a guest column here about how the Boeing problems are reflected in the ed world also.

  3. When a company is behind in production and sales, managers look for ways to shorten the schedule.
    Every aspect of the development and production cycle is shortened: product definition, design, engineering, manufacturing engineering, assembly, and quality assurance.
    The fault starts at the top, and then is distributed through the directors and management.
    I see a pattern. If it’s Boeing, I ain’t going.

  4. Here’s a national story about Boeing’s decline. The author notes: “Boeing, which went through a restructuring during the 1990s from an ‘association of engineers’
    to a firm run by Wall Street shareholders. This catastrophic path has led to another systemic crisis for one of the world’s two major commercial aviation companies, underscoring the deterioration of Boeing’s product quality by financialization, cost-cutting, and outsourcing.”

  5. I read the linked article, and the more i read, the sadder i felt. That was an article about the decline of American design and manufacturing prowess. For what?
    I suppose every criteria given to an engineer is supposed to be addressed: by providing alternative solutions. Ying to yang, show us concepts. Don’t challenge the assignment. Get’er done.
    After all, aren’t we a ‘nation’ of creative problem-solvers.
    Build me an airplane that meets all the complex and contradictory criteria (air worthiness, safety, client input, production standards, minimal fuel, maximum souls on board, market response, blah, blah, blah).
    Our failure is at the business leadership level, whom we anoint with our 401(k).
    The fault lies with us.

  6. A disturbing footnote to the discussion here about the cultural shift at Boeing – from engineering fundamentals to more of a cost-saving and stock price oriented company – a shift that arguably leads to the recent MAX incidents, two deadly and the latest that shocking hole in the fuselage shortly after takeoff.

    The plug window/door that dropped 16 thousand feet into a Portland yard is held in place by four bolts, but the NTSB reports that to date, the four bolts that should have held the door plug in place have not been found and “we have not yet determined if they existed.”

    An engineering analyst adds that even if just one of the 4 bolts had been inserted, the door would have stayed in place. His conclusion: “There were no bolts” installed.

    If that’s the final conclusion of the NTSB investigation, Boeing’s already weakening reputation will take a severe hit. A subcontractor did the fuselage assembly, but Boeing has ultimate responsibility to make sure planes are safely engineered before they’re put into service.

    As Paul Robison concludes in “Flying Blind” —

    “Boeing had reinvented itself into one of the more shareholder-friendly creatures of the market. It celebrated managers for cost cutting, co-opted regulators with heaps of money, and pressured suppliers with Walmart-style tactics.”

    A cultural shift with increasingly damaging results……


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