“If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going”. It’s a phrase that has followed the American aircraft manufacturer through decades of dominance, both at home and abroad. Not without reason, either: while competitors such as McDonnell Douglas struggled to overcome high-profile accidents – most notably with its DC-10 aircraft – Boeing was long considered the gold standard for aircraft engineering.

Ask passengers today, and a more common maxim might be “if it’s Boeing, I ain’t going”. A string of safety incidents and leaks from whistle-blowers paint a picture of a company in disarray, with lessons from previous incidents not being learned. So how did Boeing reach this point – and what does it tell us about modern safety culture in the corporate world?

Maxed out

Boeing’s recent troubles arguably began with the tragic 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019. An error in a system known as MCAS led it to rely on data from a single angle-of-attack sensor, which detects the angle of the plane’s wings against the wind, and thus its ability to generate lift. In both incidents, issues with this sensor caused the plane to seize control from the pilots and push the nose down, sending it hurtling towards the ground.

MCAS was added to the 737 MAX because the new, larger engines had to be higher and further back on the plane than previous 737 models, changing the way it handled. To prevent pilots from having to retrain for the new plane – a major expense for airlines – MCAS was quietly installed to tweak the pilots’ inputs, making it feel more like flying the old plane. Pilots were not told about the existence of MCAS, and could not override its inputs in the same way as other automatic systems, such as the autopilot.

The crashes and subsequent grounding of the 737 MAX fleet had huge ramifications for Boeing, impacting sales and trust among pilots and passengers. This was further compounded by the start of the pandemic just months after MCAS was fixed, when the planes were finally able to return to the air. Then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg was removed following the grounding, and the company was ultimately forced to pay a $2.5 billion settlement, which was split between a fine and compensation for the victims.

The current crisis

New CEO Dave Calhoun claimed that lessons would be learned from the disasters, and Boeing’s safety culture would be revamped. Five years later, the loss of a door plug from a 737 MAX 9 called this into serious question. The door plug – designed to fill an unused door frame – was not properly secured, with four bolts found to be missing. The difference in interior and exterior pressure at altitude caused it to be ejected, forcing an emergency descent. It was only by good fortune that there were no fatalities, with the seats nearest the door being unoccupied.

At the same time as this incident, a safety management audit by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was being finalised in response to the 737 MAX crashes. Its recent release was not flattering to Boeing. Having only instituted a Safety Management System in 2020, the audit alleged that there was a disconnect between Boeing’s employees and senior management on its safety culture, and that there were no procedures to ensure employees understood the SMS, what their role in it was, and how and when to report things. They also stated that Boeing no longer took as much input from pilots in its designs as it used to, particularly in relation to cockpit design.

Perhaps most worryingly, the report found that some Boeing employees were still worried about retaliation from management for reporting safety issues, despite measures taken to prevent this. This was a confirmation of issues that had already become evident in the investigation of the door plug incident, where Boeing had told the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that it couldn’t hand over documents on who’d worked on the door because they had either been lost or never existed.

Corporate failures

This may all seem slightly remote from your job or business. But the reason that many people put forward for the decline of Boeing will be very familiar. In 1997, Boeing underwent a merger with its struggling competitor, McDonnell Douglas. Where Boeing was known for being led by engineers, McDonnell Douglas had a more typical corporate structure. The company was known for cost-cutting drives and odd engineering decisions, such as the outward-opening cargo door on the DC-10. This allowed for the plane to carry more cargo, but meant it had to be securely latched, as the pressure at altitude would constantly be pushing it outwards. A failure of this latch led to a crash which killed 346 people, and severely damaged the company’s reputation.

When the two firms merged, it was McDonnell Douglas’ executives who ended up running Boeing. The change in culture was swift: staff were fired, and Boeing’s headquarters were moved away from its manufacturing base in Seattle, removing the link between engineers and management. One of its first CEOs after the merger put it bluntly: “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.” Things have only gotten worse since, with the company outsourcing more and more of the building of its planes in a bid to cut costs even further.

This is where Boeing’s current crisis starts. The aggressively-priced contracts Boeing had negotiated with its many suppliers appear to have led to them cutting corners in a bid to deliver parts on time and on budget. Evidence from the NTSB and whistle-blowers’ points to serious failures in quality control at major supplier Spirit AeroSystems, including the use of unapproved lubricants and tools, and the improper fitting of the aforementioned door plug. Having sold two of its own plants to Spirit, Boeing is now reportedly trying to buy the company out.

Learning lessons

Boeing has always been a reliable ‘blue chip’ stock, and its previous approach was that its reputation was its greatest asset. Focus on building great aircraft, and success would follow, with share prices being more of an afterthought. After the merger, this attitude seems to have shifted to a relentless focus on increasing its share price at the expense of anything else. Cutting staff, reorganising and selling off assets all look great on a balance sheet, and will please investors in the short-term. By the time the long-term impact of these decisions is felt, the person who made them will often have left the business.

This attitude is all too prevalent in corporate environments, and has been the downfall of many a company. The qualities that put a business like Boeing in the position it occupies are whittled away in the pursuit of greater profits. In manufacturing – as in many other industries – safety is often the first thing to be sacrificed. Procedures designed to catch errors are shortened; the roles of three inspectors are consolidated into one; production increases without ramping up quality control. Any process that exists to guarantee safety is slimmed down to the absolute legal minimum.

Safety can be expensive, particularly in an industry like this, where the stakes are so high. But safety is also an investment that reaps dividends. It led Boeing to be the biggest and most respected aerospace company in the world, a position it has now held for over a century. It’s the same relentless focus on safety that has led air travel to be the safest form of mass transportation – a no-blame culture where pilots are honest about mistakes, and every accident report highlights a change that will make flying safer.

When safety is treated as an inconvenience, and a cost that needs to be minimised, it ceases to be effective. A culture like the one alleged at Boeing can quickly take hold, where shortcuts are taken in critical safety processes, and people are afraid to report lapses and oversights for fear of losing their jobs. The C-suite meanwhile, disconnected from the realities of work on the ground, lacks the context required to understand the consequences of its decisions.

Boeing’s road back to restoring public trust is likely to be long and winding, but its size and importance is such that it cannot go under. Its recent troubles should thus be an impetus to invest in safety and reforming its safety culture, not an excuse to cut costs even further. While bringing engineers back into the boardroom would be a start, the most consequential move Boeing and any other business can make is to take safety seriously, and allow people to report problems without fear of reprisal. Do this, and you’ll be in it for the long haul.