Boeing comeback plan for 2024 nosedives just five days in

By Julie Johnsson

Wrongly drilled holes, loose rudder bolts, and now a fuselage section that ejected during a flight on a brand-new aircraft, leaving terrified passengers exposed to a gaping hole in the cabin at 4900 metres.

In just months, Boeing has suffered a series of quality lapses that threaten to erode trust in the manufacturing prowess of the biggest US exporter – notably its 737 Max aircraft, which is a crucial cash cow.

A passenger’s view from inside the Alaska Airlines aircraft on January 5, showing the blown-out panel.
A passenger’s view from inside the Alaska Airlines aircraft on January 5, showing the blown-out panel.Credit: AP

The latest, most serious, mishap occurred on the evening of January 5, when a door-shaped panel ripped out as an Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 climbed out of Portland, Oregon.

Regulators reacted swiftly, by grounding 171 of the variants less than 24 hours after the incident, including the entire fleet of 737 Max 9s in the US. And while nobody was seriously injured, authorities said luck played a big part in the event not turning tragic.

For Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun, the Alaska Air episode is another blow to his efforts to stabilise the company after half a decade of upheaval, coming just a few days into a new year he had heralded as crucial to a turnaround.

Boeing is still feeling the reverberations of two deadly 737 Max crashes almost five years ago that shook confidence in the company. Now Boeing’s fraught relationship with its biggest supplier – Spirit AeroSystems Holdings – stands to face fresh scrutiny.

‘In the background of this, there is bad need for cultural changes that put senior corporate management more closely in touch with the design and manufacture of aircraft.’

Richard Aboulafia, AeroDynamic Advisory managing director

“I would hope that they will quickly get to the bottom of this and see if it was truly a one-off,” said Richard Healing, a former National Transportation Safety Board member, who now heads consulting firm Air Safety Engineering.

“If it was just that airplane, there may have been poor workmanship done when they locked off that door. I would be looking at everything you can imagine.”

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Cabin layout

The National Transportation Safety Board, which arrived on the scene in Portland within hours of the incident, will examine Boeing’s manufacturing process for the 737 Max 9 as it investigates what may have led to the panel’s blowout. Jennifer Homendy, the safety agency’s chair, said at a press conference that components around the door opening, including hinges and stop fittings, as well as the pressurisation, would be of particular interest.

Boeing’s former Wichita, Kansas-based subsidiary builds about 70 per cent of the 737’s frame set, according to Spirit’s website. The green aluminum fuselages are shipped by rail to Boeing’s factory in Renton, Washington state, where wings, tails and interiors are installed. These include different cabin configurations depending on the seating density.

In the stretched Max 9, customers can opt for additional emergency exits so that cabins can squeeze in more seats. Alaska Air and United Airlines Holdings opted to cover the door-shaped opening with a plug that’s indiscernible from the inside of the plane.

Investigators will likely look into how the doors are plugged and even question why they exist if they could come open, Healing said.

The hinged section is secured by four bolts and opens outward from the top, according to Chris Brady, a former head of the UK Flight Safety Committee.

“Something must have been amiss with at least one of those bolts,” he said on a video posted to Youtube.

Boeing’s global president and chief executive, Dave Calhoun.
Boeing’s global president and chief executive, Dave Calhoun.
Credit: Jamila Toderas

Spirit has struggled with quality issues, high worker turnover, labour strife and financial stress since the COVID pandemic and 2019 Max grounding.

New chief executive Pat Shanahan is shaking up operations and has struck a new pact with Boeing to put its top supplier on better footing.

Troubled history

The Alaska Air scare prompted US regulators to order emergency inspections for about 171 of Boeing’s Max 9 models worldwide. While the disruption to air travel is likely to be short-lived – the inspections only take four to eight hours per jet – the repercussions will likely still be lingering when Calhoun outlines his road map for the year to investors during a January 31 earnings call.

“It’s not good for anybody, especially given this aircraft’s history,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director at aviation consultant AeroDynamic Advisory. “In the background of this, there is bad need for cultural changes that put senior corporate management more closely in touch with the design and manufacture of aircraft.”

Boeing said it supported the grounding and that it was in close touch with the regulator and with customers. A technical team from the US plane maker is supporting the probe. For his part, Calhoun, who has led Boeing since early 2020, had previously cautioned that the road to a brighter future would be bumpy.

“When we set our recovery plans, we knew issues would come up along the way,” Calhoun said in a memo to workers in late October. “This is a complex long-cycle business and enduring change takes time.”

It’s too soon to know what caused the door plug to fail during the Alaska Air flight, and whether Boeing or Spirit made critical missteps. Boeing has ultimate responsibility for ensuring an aircraft is airworthy. Every jet in final assembly undergoes pressure tests to find leaks and ensure doors are sealed.

And in the aftermath of the Max tragedies – where almost 350 people died in crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019 – Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors must sign off before the workhorse jets are handed off to customers.

Zero defects

One of the consequences of the Alaska Air incident may be a slower increase to the 737 manufacturing pace than Boeing had planned for the year. The plane maker faces immense pressure to return its factories to 2019 rates at a time when customers are clamouring for the latest aircraft, and investors are expecting cash generation to surge.

Before the incident, analysts had predicted that Boeing would deliver about 580 of their 737-series jetliners this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s a considerable jump from the 375 to 400 deliveries that the company targeted for 2023. A delivery surge would also propel Boeing to its first annual profit since Calhoun took over as CEO.

“There is a risk of having to slow down the ramp,” said Aboulafia. “The aftermath could well be time-consuming and a diversion of resources.”

As the latest Max crisis unfolded, Boeing’s commercial airplanes chief, Stan Deal, and Brad McMullen, the senior vice president of sales, led teams of people reaching out to keep customers ahead of fast-moving developments.

Hours before the FAA acted, United Airlines, the biggest operator of the Max 9 variant, had already begun pulling planes out of service at Boeing’s direction, starting with five Max 9 built in a similar time frame to the Alaska Air jet.

That’s in keeping with Calhoun’s philosophy of hands-off management, and pushing responsibility and resources to the company’s main business units. The Boeing CEO doesn’t stalk factory floors like his predecessor, Dennis Muilenburg, a Boeing lifer and engineer by training who was forced out over his handling of the Max grounding after the two deadly crashes.

Calhoun described 2024 as an “important transitional year” to employees when he introduced Stephanie Pope as the company’s chief operating officer last month. Guiding the embattled plane maker through it just became a lot tougher for Calhoun and Pope, the frontrunner to succeed him. A key question is how many more bruising headlines Boeing can endure before customers start to waver.

“If Boeing doesn’t get its factories stabilised, it’s going to be a problem selling airplanes – if it isn’t already,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson. “You’ve got to have zero defects all the time. That’s the business.”

Bloomberg

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