Boeing will slow production of its 737 Max commercial jets from 52 per month to 42, the company announced Friday. The move reflects a growing realization across the aviation community that a two-week-old worldwide grounding of Max 8 and 9 jets is unlikely to abate soon.
Boeing has stopped delivering the new jets while the grounding order is in effect, and it has been preparing a software fix designed to address safety concerns.
“We’re adjusting the 737 production system temporarily to accommodate the pause in MAX deliveries, allowing us to prioritize additional resources to focus on software certification and returning the MAX to flight,” Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg said in a statement Friday. He added that the company will maintain its current employment levels as it “continues to invest in the broader health and quality of our production system and supply chain.”
Boeing is grappling with the fallout of two deadly plane crashes that killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia, as well as a growing body of evidence suggesting that equipment problems played a role in both tragedies.
Ethiopian black-box investigators confirmed Thursday that a new flight control system, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, which can send the plane automatically into a nose-dive in certain dangerous situations, was activated in the final minutes of the Ethiopian flight. They also confirmed that external sensors on the plane’s nose fed erroneous information into the plane’s flight control system. Both issues were present in the Indonesian accident.
The possibility that design flaws caused the two crashes has led to tense confrontations with U.S. pilot unions, congressional hearings examining how the plane was certified and a criminal investigation. And it has cost the company business, with one Indonesian airline canceling a multibillion-dollar order because of “consumers’ low confidence” in the 737 Max.
Boeing has been preparing a software fix it hopes will deal with the MCAS issue. The company expects to submit the planned fix to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval “in the coming weeks,” reflecting a delay from its earlier timeline. Those plans are further complicated by a second software issue that the FAA has ordered it to fix, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
But even after Boeing completes the requested software fixes, it still might not be enough for the FAA and international regulators to deem the plane safe. It could be several months before 737 Max 8 and 9 planes are allowed to carry customers again.
Muilenburg framed the company’s decision as part of an effort to make its airplanes “as safe as any airplane ever to fly.” He said the company will work with plants to mitigate the financial impact of the production slowdown and work directly with aviation parts suppliers to minimize the business impact on them.
“We have the responsibility to eliminate this risk, and we know how to do it,” Muilenburg wrote. “As part of this effort, we’re making progress on the 737 MAX software update that will prevent accidents like these from ever happening again.”
The company’s efforts will include not only targeted software fixes designed to fix the plane’s flight control systems but also a broader review of the company’s business practices. The company’s board of directors has established a committee to “review companywide policies and processes” for aircraft design and development.
The committee is to be staffed by Boeing board members, including former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman Edmund Giambastiani; Boeing board member and biotechnology executive Robert Bradway; Duke Energy chief executive Lynn Good; and former Allstate chief executive Edward Liddy.
The company has pushed back on the idea that there is something inherently flawed about how it develops airplanes, however. A Boeing executive speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record told reporters in Renton, Wash., last week that the company sees “no reason to overhaul” its airplane development process.
“The process that we follow with our regulators has continued to lead to safer and safer airplanes and safer and safer operations over time,” the Boeing executive said. “Right now, I would be very careful about indicting any part of that process until we know more about the specifics of either one of these accidents."
The company said Friday that it expects the board committee to “confirm the effectiveness” of the aircraft development system it has in place.
“The committee will confirm the effectiveness of our policies and processes for assuring the highest level of safety on the 737-MAX program, as well as our other airplane programs, and recommend improvements to our policies and procedures,” Muilenburg wrote.