Written by David Gelles and Natalie Kitroeff
For the past five months, a small committee of Boeing’s board has been interviewing company employees, safety experts and executives at other industrial organizations in an attempt to understand how the aerospace giant could design and build safer airplanes.
The committee is expected to deliver its findings to the full Boeing board this week and call for several meaningful changes to the way the company is structured, according to three people briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report has not yet been submitted.
The recommendations will include that Boeing change aspects of its organizational structure, calling for the creation of new groups focused on safety and encouraging the company to consider making changes to the cockpits of future airplanes to accommodate a new generation of pilots, some of whom may have less training.
Though the committee did not investigate the two crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max jet, their findings represent the company’s most direct effort yet to reform its internal processes after the accidents, which killed 346 people.
One of the report’s most significant findings concerns the reporting structure for engineers at the company. At Boeing, top engineers report primarily to the business leaders for each airplane model, and secondarily to the company’s chief engineer.
Under this model, engineers who identify problems that might slow a jet’s development could face resistance from executives whose jobs revolve around meeting production deadlines. The committee recommends flipping the reporting lines, so that top engineers report primarily to Boeing’s chief engineer, and secondarily to business unit leaders.
Another key recommendation calls for establishing a new safety group that will work across the company. The committee examined the process by which Boeing employees conduct certification work on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration, known as Organization Designation Authorization, as well as an internal company framework known as the Boeing Safety Management System.
Boeing has more than 100,000 employees and, like many large companies, at times struggles with information flow. In particular, there has been inadequate communication within the engineering department, and from Boeing’s commercial airplanes division, based in the Seattle area, to Boeing corporate offices in Chicago.
The new safety group will work to ensure that the company’s various efforts have adequate independence and are working together and sharing information effectively. The new group will report to senior Boeing leadership, as well as to a new permanent committee on the board focused on aerospace safety.
A third major recommendation involves how Boeing approaches the design of future airplanes. Though the Max crashes were triggered by the malfunction of a new system on the planes, there is a simmering debate concerning whether the pilots responded appropriately, and whether the Lion Air plane that crashed off Indonesia last October should have been flying at all because of maintenance problems.
Training levels can vary by country. The first officer of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed in March, was relatively inexperienced, with just over 200 hours flying 737s.
The board committee is expected to recommend that Boeing reexamine cockpit design and operation to ensure that new Boeing planes are accessible for the next generation of pilots, including those with less training.
Boeing’s chief executive, Dennis A. Muilenburg, established the committee in April, calling on it to review “companywide policies and processes for the design and development of the airplanes we build.” The group included four Boeing directors familiar with complex industrial systems, as well as highly regulated industries.
Adm. Edmund Giambastiani Jr., a former nuclear submarine officer and the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the committee chairman. The other members were Lynn Good, the chief executive of Duke Energy and a board member of the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations; Edward Liddy, the former chief executive of the insurance company Allstate; and Robert Bradway, the chief executive of Amgen, a pharmaceuticals company.
To conduct its review, the committee interviewed dozens of Boeing employees about their work. The committee also hired independent safety experts who had experience with industrial accidents including the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Columbia space shuttle disaster and the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident. Among the experts was Sean O’Keefe, the former NASA administrator.
Additionally, the committee consulted with officials from NASA, General Electric, Duke Energy and military leaders who had experience dealing with accidents and their aftermaths.
The Max remains grounded six months after the second crash, though the FAA may allow the planes to fly again by the end of the year, according to several people familiar with the process. Some international regulators are likely to take longer, however, signaling a rift in the global aviation community.
This month, Patrick Ky, the head of the European Aviation Safety Agency, suggested that when the FAA deemed the Max safe to fly again, his agency was unlikely to do so at the same time.
“The FAA is in a very difficult situation,” Ky said during an appearance at European Parliament. “When they say this is good to go, it’s very likely that international authorities will want a second opinion.”
Even as the FAA is working with Boeing to return the Max to service, the regulator itself is facing scrutiny. A multiagency task force reviewing the certification of the Max is also expected to submit its report this month, and is likely to recommend changes to the way the FAA oversees airplane manufacturers like Boeing, according to people briefed on the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the review is incomplete.
The group, known as the Joint Authorities Technical Review, is led by Chris Hart, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and includes representatives from NASA, the FAA and international regulators. The report is expected to include about a dozen recommendations, with a focus on improving transparency in the certification process.
Frustration with Boeing is mounting on Capitol Hill. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said in an interview that he invited Boeing to testify at a House hearing, but the company declined.
“Next time, it won’t just be an invitation, if necessary,” DeFazio said.
Congressional investigators are combing through tens of thousands of internal Boeing documents, looking for potential flaws in the Max’s development and certification.
“We’ve got massive amounts of documents from Boeing,” DeFazio said. “But they have otherwise been not particularly cooperative.”
The FAA and international regulators are similarly frustrated with Boeing, a sentiment that became apparent at a meeting last month.
In August, Boeing met with officials from the FAA and other global aviation agencies to brief them on its efforts to complete fixes on the Max. Regulators asked detailed questions about adjustments to the Max’s flight control computers, which the Boeing representatives there were not prepared to answer.
Instead, the company representatives began to display a PowerPoint presentation on their efforts, according to people briefed on the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was not public.
At that point, the regulators ended the meeting. Weeks later, Boeing has still not answered all their questions.