Is Boeing a Metaphor of our Times?
Boeing grew out of war. Its engineers designed and launched the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress. There followed the B-29, the B-47 and the also legendary B-52. On the civilian side, came the Boeing 707, 727, 737, 747, 767, 777, 787 and more. There aren't many of us who haven't had a ride in a Boeing aircraft.
There was a time when Boeing set the bar for other manufacturers. It was an unusual company run by engineers whose focus was on one thing - building better airplanes. It's competitors, Douglas, Lockheed, deHavilland, Vickers, BAC, came and went. The Europeans set up Airbus but, even then, Boeing seemed unstoppable.
Then Boeing fell into the clutches of Wall Street. It began when Boeing swallowed the poison pill, a.k.a. McDonnell Douglas.At the time, McDonnell Douglas was run by Harry Stonecipher, an unpleasant chief executive who relished cost cutting and had little patience for deliberative engineers. It was an attitude Stonecipher developed during his years at General Electric, where he worked with Jack Welch, the most influential C.E.O. of his generation and the pioneer of a new style of cutthroat capitalism that prioritized shareholder value above all else.
Stonecipher became chief executive of Boeing and promptly turned the company’s attention away from the business of producing exquisitely designed airplanes and toward the matter of generating profits for shareholders. Payrolls were slashed. Union labor was shunned. Technical work was outsourced to cheap contractors. The transformation only accelerated under Boeing’s next C.E.O., Jim McNerney, another G.E. veteran, who was a runner-up to replace Welch at G.E.
There was the decision to redesign the 737 instead of designing a new jet, obliging the company to update a plane that had been introduced in the 1960s. There was the introduction of a new piece of poorly designed software, MCAS, which ultimately wrested control of the plane away from the pilots. And there were the numerous instances when Boeing employees, including [chief test pilot] Forkner, played down the importance of MCAS to federal regulators and airlines, leaving pilots unaware of the new software until after the first crash. All the while, as Boeing executives skimped on the design and development of the Max, they shoveled billions of dollars back to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends.
There is a grim sense of inevitability as the crashes draw nearer. Among the most ominous warning signs Robison identifies are the Boeing employees who despaired about their own company. Many said they wouldn’t set foot on a Boeing plane. Others disparaged their colleagues, their customers and the regulators. During the design of the Max, one manager told an engineer: “People have to die before Boeing will change things.”