Twilight of the phenomenally talented assholes
April 2, 2024 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Like most neoliberal institutions, Boeing had come under the spell of a seductive new theory of “knowledge” that essentially reduced the whole concept to a combination of intellectual property, trade secrets, and data, discarding “thought” and “understanding” and “complex reasoning” possessed by a skilled and experienced workforce as essentially not worth the increased health care costs. CEO Jim McNerney, who joined Boeing in 2005, had last helmed 3M, where management as he saw it had “overvalued experience and undervalued leadership” before he purged the veterans into early retirement. “Prince Jim”—as some long-timers used to call him—repeatedly invoked a slur for longtime engineers and skilled machinists in the obligatory vanity “leadership” book he co-wrote. Those who cared too much about the integrity of the planes and not enough about the stock price were “phenomenally talented assholes,” and he encouraged his deputies to ostracize them into leaving the company.
Suicide Mission: What Boeing did to all the guys who remember how to build a plane [The American Prospect]

NYMag: How Boeing Sold its Soul to Boost its Stock Price
Thanks to a string of unforced errors and botched responses, Boeing, like other corporate giants from the 20th century, has devolved from the epitome of world-beating quality to a symbol of managerial fecklessness, focused on short-term profits at the expense of the company’s long-term sustainability. Boeing cut corners in production, pushed out experienced workers to save money, and poured money into boosting the stock price instead of investing in its products. “The Achilles heel of the company has been chasing short-term profits and stock prices,” says Justin Green, a partner at the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, which is representing 34 families of passengers who died in the Ethiopian 737 Max. “Long term, it’s killing the company.”
NYT: ‘Shortcuts Everywhere’: How Boeing Favored Speed Over Quality
Some of the crucial layers of redundancies that are supposed to ensure that Boeing’s planes are safe appear to be strained, the people said. The experience level of Boeing’s work force has dropped since the start of the pandemic. The inspection process intended to provide a vital check on work done by its mechanics has been weakened over the years. And some suppliers have struggled to adhere to quality standards while producing parts at the pace Boeing wanted them.
CBS: Family of Boeing whistleblower John Barnett speaks out following his death
The mother of John Barnett, a former Boeing quality manager-turned-whistleblower who died earlier this month, told CBS News she holds the aircraft manufacturing giant responsible for the grinding treatment that ultimately left her son despondent. "If this hadn't gone on so long, I'd still have my son, and my sons would have their brother and we wouldn't be sitting here. So in that respect, I do," Vicky Stokes said when asked if she places some of the blame for her son's death on Boeing.
The Cut: "If It’s Boeing, I’m Not Going" - Up close with the 737 anxiety that’s turning us all into amateur aeronautics experts.
For the past few months, the Boeing C-suite has been a bit like Kensington Palace, in that we keep fixating on it and asking: What is happening? Why would you do that? and Are you evil? Boeing kept the top brass safe in their jobs until literally this week, when CEO Dave Calhoun, who had blamed the door incident on “quality escape,” announced that he would resign by the end of 2024. With spring-break season in full swing, I scanned the Boeing memes (a recurring motif: “If it’s Boeing, I’m not going”), dove deep into Boeing TikTok, lost hours in Boeing Reddit forums, and listened to the podcasts. Everywhere I looked, I was confronted with flight anxiety and amateur (but impressive) research on jets. Had we reached the point of too much “quality escape”? Were we collectively so skeeved by the never-ending cavalcade of terrible Boeing news that we were now changing carefully booked travel plans?
Fast Company: 3 ways to avoid flying on a Boeing 737 Max
Regardless of whether these incidents are all really as bad as they seem, the constant media focus on Boeing’s failures is understandably making some frequent flyers apprehensive of stepping onto a Boeing 737 Max. But if you’re one of them, there is some good news: there are several tricks and tools you can use to avoid flying on one—though there is also one significant limitation to these methods, too.
The Stand: Boeing unions want a seat at the table
With Boeing’s announcement that CEO Dave Calhoun will step down, among other company leadership changes, the unions representing Boeing employees are calling for more than just a shuffling of executive officers. The people who design and build Boeing airplanes are calling for systemic change — and a seat at the table — to ensure that quality and safety are reestablished as company priorities.
Boeing previously on MeFi:
Why did the Boeing 737 Max crash?
"You can think of it sort of like a idiots version of Slack"
Death of an airliner
Sleight of the 'Invisible Hand'
Boeing whistleblower John Barnett found dead in US
AskMe: So what Boeing planes should I avoid right now?
posted by Rhaomi (76 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
 
Once again proving that there's nothing so good that an MBA can't find a way to maximize its profits on a slide towards death.
posted by drewbage1847 at 3:25 PM on April 2 [58 favorites]


The stock market is a cancer on society.
posted by maxwelton at 3:29 PM on April 2 [53 favorites]


If there's one thing rich know-nothings can't stand it's someone with actual talent and experience who knows what they're talking about.
posted by chasing at 3:38 PM on April 2 [65 favorites]


I'm a mechanic and it's a wonderful thing to start working somewhere and discover that you work with even one phenomenally talented asshole.
posted by shenkerism at 3:42 PM on April 2 [58 favorites]


Christ, what an asshole.
posted by slater at 3:46 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


"undervalued leadership"

What a slimy, self-serving, greedy, blinkered, idiotic thing to say. Prince of the Assholes Jim should be put in stocks in the town square for everyone to pelt with rotten food. And then all his money taken away.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:51 PM on April 2 [32 favorites]


I think it's less the stock market than it is the quarterly-reported earning cycle that is the cancer on society. Used to be companies could look at years or 5 years or 10 years for a profit cycle, not 3 months.
posted by hippybear at 3:52 PM on April 2 [19 favorites]


These assholes feel like the same asshole-wrapped Dunning-Kruger effect as that other asshole…

“No one knows how to build [an airplane]” - Milton Friedman <<==that asshole

It seems like someone used to know how to build airplanes.
posted by rubatan at 3:53 PM on April 2 [5 favorites]


It's worth noting that this happened when Boeing bought out McDonnell-Douglas after the DC-10 failures, and their Wall Street leadership took over.

As it turns out, there is a corporate form of kuru.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:03 PM on April 2 [33 favorites]


If you come across an asshole today, you've come across an asshole. That's life.
If you come across assholes all day long, you're the asshole.

What's more likely: that the engineers and mechanics in the old Boeing were assholes?
Or that McInerney is an asshole.
posted by ocschwar at 4:05 PM on April 2 [12 favorites]


I am getting on a plane next week because I love someone and it matters that I meet their family. A plane is the only practical way to make this happen.

I might die, but I wasn't ever going to collect social security anyway so if the plane falls apart it only beat the economic system I was born into to the punch.

Welcome to 40! Who cares how you die? It's coming for you sooner rather than later!
posted by East14thTaco at 4:07 PM on April 2 [15 favorites]


Christ, what an asshole.

a phenomenally untalented one!
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:08 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


Just to be clear: plane travel is safer than any other travel, mile for mile. You have a greater chance of dying on your way to the airport than you do between airports on an airplane.
posted by hippybear at 4:10 PM on April 2 [15 favorites]


Who cares how you die? It's coming for you sooner rather than later!

This increasingly feels like the most appropriate tagline for end stage capitalism. All the money bleeds out upwards, all the risk and consequence bleeds out downward. Unless you're on the side with the money, it comes down to how much *additional* risk and consequence you're willing to swallow, on top of all the risk and consequence you're getting by default, just as a door prize for existing in this timeline, the stupidest and most venal dystopia.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 4:13 PM on April 2 [16 favorites]


Yeah hippybear, but I don’t care. I might have some degree of avoiding that death, while when I am a passenger on a flight, I have no control. Makes no statistical sense. Haven’t flown in over a decade. Won’t if I don’t have to cross an ocean.
posted by Windopaene at 4:22 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


There are ways to cross oceans without flying. But they take up a lot of time and can be difficult to book. But there's an entire little industry built around booking passengers on freight liners. Not cushy, but it's possible.
posted by hippybear at 4:37 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


“overvalued experience and undervalued leadership”

This reads like a parody but clearly he was serious. And while he was the public face of the debacle, he was backed by the board and senior leadership. It's amazing how someone so untalented can rise so far. I'm guessing he has excellent people skills and can schmooze with the best of them.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:37 PM on April 2 [15 favorites]


There are ways to cross oceans without flying. But they take up a lot of time and can be difficult to book. But there's an entire little industry built around booking passengers on freight liners. Not cushy, but it's possible.

Which have also had a couple of high profile mishaps in recent years! Never before anxiously imagined myself having a bunk on the Ever Given, but now I will!
posted by eirias at 4:53 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


This is another instance where I really wish my dad were still around to ask him about this. He worked at the Renton Boeing plant from '86 to '97, and he used to be an USAF navigator. So even though he wasn't an engineer, he knew stuff about planes. I'm sure he would not mince words about what has happened to the company.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:55 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


You know what, I'm starting to think capitalism may not be all that awesome, you guys.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:56 PM on April 2 [38 favorites]


“overvalued experience and undervalued leadership”

This has the stink of actual MBA jargon. I presume "leadership" means "people whose job is to cut corners" and "experience" means "people who know why you absolutely should not cut particular corners."
posted by straight at 5:03 PM on April 2 [53 favorites]


This CEO is allowed to just quit? He made this mess, and now he walks away unscathed. What a dumb system.
posted by Vatnesine at 5:08 PM on April 2 [10 favorites]


I highly recommend the FPP article. I knew it would give me ammo to feel angry, but I didn't know it would give me the feels. RIP Swampy.
posted by jonp72 at 5:10 PM on April 2 [8 favorites]


It's well worth looking at the Moses Lake facility on google maps: it really brings it home in a way I find hard to describe. I literally had my hand over my mouth, like I'd seen something terrible, and wanted to cry out.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 5:36 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


This is absolutely appalling. I read the article and yes, RIP Swampy.

This whole way of business thinking is a cancer on the planet.

I work in a large warehouse for the government, as I've mentioned here before, and HR has way too much say in what we do. In our last in house completion to be promoted, the HR person, who has exactly zero experience on the warehouse floor, awarded people the position based primarily on their interview, and based that on what regurgitated buzz words they used. Literally. Even when supervisors attempted to correct her because an answer in the interview was wrong, unsafe, and contravened standard warehouse SOPs, she had final authority and refused their input. She is a dull witted goon who has all the right credentials, but, we can't find good people because the previous right wing provincial government froze wages and salaries for so long at one point that we're way behind the private sector for management wages and good people won't accept what we pay.
Because of HR's extreme incompetence some of the worst people in the building finished high up in the competition. The thing is the work for a lot of the successful applicants requires driving an 8500 pound forklift.
So, this guy at work who has vision issues (true story) has smashed into various things like drainage pipes because the fact THAT HE CAN'T FUCKING SEE PROPERLY played no part in the HR person's awarding him a high placing in the competition.
Experience, work ethic, intelligence, capability all played no part in HR's decision making process; just whatever white collar metrics that are standard for the provincial government, and her interpretation of them based on the right 'words' used in the application and interview.
Yes, on a much smaller scale I relate to this post, and Boing should be an object lesson taught in all business schools and of course it won't be.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 5:55 PM on April 2 [21 favorites]


On the flip side of it, engineers are not innocent in this. For the last half of my career I considered that the entire management suite existed to pull together money so that me and my friends could build interesting devices. We knew about the stock price of course but -- particularly at startups -- we never expected to make any serious money from it. People were paying us to have fun!

I have no doubt that the CEO thought we were a bunch of assholes. I'm content.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:08 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


As it turns out, there is a corporate form of kuru.

Sh*pify was in “growth mode” and hired a bunch of F*cebook PMs (and promoted a particularly fashy one of them to COO) and wondered why things turned internecine.
posted by sixswitch at 6:14 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


“overvalued experience and undervalued leadership”

In corporate America, "experience" takes its cues from best practice and focuses on doing things right. "Leadership" takes its cues from investor expectation and focuses on doing things more profitably. Of course leadership trumps experience.

Boeing put profit over doing things right, for decades, and this -- the corporate culture and the state of their products -- is the result.

And now that the mask has slipped, how will they change? How can they? They're under the spotlight now, sure, so they'll move their mouths and say the things we expect them to say, but they're still a Fortune Global 500 company. They're still beholden to the same investors whose demands they followed to get here. Short of dissolving and reincorporating as something else entirely, they're still going to be playing the same game they and every other multinational corporation in the world is playing. They'll continue to seek ways to minimize costs and maximize revenue, and sooner or later we'll be back here again.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 6:16 PM on April 2 [7 favorites]


sounds just like the wonderful world of devolving education.... the romans had their lead pipes, america has business school turning out kamikaze managers.
posted by graywyvern at 6:30 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


really horrifying opening arguments epi, re boeing. how easy they got off, how complicit doj is, and how the families got screwed.
posted by j_curiouser at 6:37 PM on April 2


Just to be clear: plane travel is safer than any other travel, mile for mile. You have a greater chance of dying on your way to the airport than you do between airports on an airplane.

Butwhataboutism is alive and healthy.
posted by kjs3 at 6:41 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


y'all i propose some sort of smorgasbord of socialist practices not because I like people or whatever --- what we have to show for our time here so far turns out to be a bunch of environmental degradation and genocide and apparently aviation incidents, layered over the ashes of some better attempts plus some prior disasters; fuck us in aggregate but here we are, so --- but because I'm sick of this galaxy brain bullshit about how all desirable ends are supposedly going to arise epiphenomenally from abstract financial incentives instead of the more parsimonious thing where, when some shit presents itself to be done, we do it properly because there's some identifiable reason to do that particular thing, and otherwise we go home. production for fucking use. i feel like most people are capable of participating in making this happen or at least coaxable in that direction and it is a prerequisite for updating that assessment about the environmental collapse and genocide. so can we get on this, please. swords to ploughshares except, like, b-schools to nice viney tendrils poking out of rubble. thx.
posted by busted_crayons at 6:47 PM on April 2 [10 favorites]


My presidential campaign will propose a twenty year moratorium on the assignment of any MBA degrees
MAKE AMERICA SAFE (for flight) AGAIN!

Yes, I know not all MBAs exist solely to profit from shoveling the value of a company's real assets into the flaming hellmouth. But, let's start reducing the supply, and see what happens.

Great post Rhaomi.
posted by jerome powell buys his sweatbands in bulk only at 6:55 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


Hard to believe this is the same company that built the first stage of the Saturn V.
posted by credulous at 7:03 PM on April 2 [8 favorites]


... plane travel is safer than any other travel, mile for mile ...
I suspect most of those miles are flown in aircraft manufactured before Boeing (and, let's face it, while Airbus et al haven't yet featured in the news for aircraft raining from the sky, there's no doubt they've been subject to the same type and level of mismanagement so it's just a matter of time) downgraded the value of a human life to below the value of an investor. I'll be surprised if we don't see fatal air crashes spike over the next few years.

Unfortunately, the thinking leading to Boeing's impending collapse has fully infected the business and government sectors. I say impending collapse because the people responsible for that same thinking will, at some point, do the sums, decide to liquidate Boeing and morph it into a new corporate entity that can buy all the stock for nothing. They can then set about the whole cycle all over again. The difference is they won't have responsibility for all the faulty planes that other company (RIP) manufactured.

I've seen this focus on 'leadership' first-hand in government and it's just as the article describes it - the recall of buzz-words and willingness to fuck over anyone that gets in the way trumps actual knowledge and experience every time. The government organisation I worked in until a few years ago (a small independent regulatory agency) has chased out pretty much all the staff with actual knowledge by either outright firing them or by making their working life so miserable they quit and it now can't even respond to the smallest of issues in the sector in any real way, much less actually regulate effectively. They write a slick annual report though, I'll give them that. I'm amazed that nobody seems to have noticed they aren't actually doing anything any more. The result, while not directly costing lives in any way, will be catastrophic for that sector in a few years.

This is happening everywhere. The publicly traded companies are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to failure caused by content-free management.

Yes, RIP Swampy - no matter the specific truth of his death, Boeing's management killed him just as if they held a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
posted by dg at 7:03 PM on April 2 [13 favorites]


This article has gone viral in the large tech company that employs me.
posted by potrzebie at 7:27 PM on April 2 [6 favorites]


I don’t even wanna know how many tens of millions of dollars he’s going to get paid on the way out the door
posted by gottabefunky at 7:48 PM on April 2


I have been enjoying (perversely) https://admiralcloudberg.medium.com/ for accounts of plane crashes and near-misses.
posted by sixswitch at 7:50 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


The proximate cause of the crash turned out to be relatively simple: large chunks of ice, liberated from the wings during liftoff, fell back and were ingested into the MD-81’s rear-mounted engines. But the potential for this exact type of accident was well known in the industry and even within Scandinavian Airlines, so why did it happen anyway? Investigators would ultimately reveal several factors that led to the preventable accident, including… a software system installed quietly by McDonnell Douglas that may have caused the plane’s second engine to fail moments after the first.
posted by sixswitch at 7:53 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Almost as painful as "the o-rings froze and cracked"...
posted by hippybear at 8:09 PM on April 2 [7 favorites]


sooner or later we'll be back here again.

I'll be immensely surprise if things actually get better. At best Boeing won't slide any further down for a little while. It'll take at least a decade of reduced profits and share value to unfuck their current setup and I don't see a path forward where that can happen.
posted by Mitheral at 8:22 PM on April 2


It's the lost revenue from the airlines flying the Max that is going to be the real black eye all around. People are searching what kind of plane they'll be flying on and making ticket purchases based on that information. THAT is what is damaging because it's not just the manufacturer, it's the purchaser who will feel it.
posted by hippybear at 8:31 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


> People are searching what kind of plane they'll be flying on and making ticket purchases based on that information

I tried doing this for a trip I was considering going on and it turns out there are plenty of airports where a 737 MAX of one sort or another is the only feasible way of getting there. Argh.
posted by nickzoic at 8:37 PM on April 2


Try calling the airline reservation number for the airline and asking if they will fly a non Max plane to that airport and insinuate that is what would get you to purchase a ticket.

Part of the coverage of this has included a lot of coverage of the nightmare of the 787 Dreamliner and how it wasn't actually designed but instead was parted out.. and i'm all like DAMN! because I'd long thought that was sort of a pinnacle of airplane engineering.

Boeing's marketing team is top notch!
posted by hippybear at 8:55 PM on April 2


Just to be clear: plane travel is safer than any other travel, mile for mile. You have a greater chance of dying on your way to the airport than you do between airports on an airplane.

Butwhataboutism is alive and healthy.

To be more clear, the distance between passenger deaths in US commercial airline travel is on the verge of being appropriately measured in distances described using light years of which Boeing and NTSB should be lauded, but instead are derided. The power of the press indeed.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:02 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


One of Boeing’s biggest mistakes in my opinion was failing to design a true 737 replacement and instead going with the MAX. The Max required a lot of design compromises to accommodate an airframe that had already been pushed to its reasonable limits. 737s have been in service since the 1960s and the fuselage originated with the 707 back in the 50s. Aircraft engines have been getting a lot bigger as they find new and better ways to get more power and more fuel economy out of the designs. The problem is, they can’t really raise the 737 higher off the ground to make room for those engines, so on the Max they made room by pushing the engines forward. They compensated for that with the MCAS. That led to a chain reaction of problems in design, and the following problems that resulted from them trying to avoid pilots having to recertify, combining to create the circumstances that ended up with over 300 people dead. Meanwhile, Airbus, still fresh off being on the losing end of A380 vs 777/787 (Airbus bet on capacity, Boeing bet on economy, and Boeing came out ahead) got working on the A220 to complement the new A320NEO. Both have turned out to be excellent aircraft and offer airlines good alternatives to mutiple 737 models. Boeing, meanwhile, decided not to continue to pursue the New Midsize Airplane that they had been working on so they now have no alternatives to offer airlines other than the 737. If they decided now to design a new aircraft from the ground up, it would be years before they could start delivering those aircraft to airline buyers. I don’t see how they catch up with Airbus for a long, long time.
posted by azpenguin at 9:36 PM on April 2 [9 favorites]


It's amazing how someone so untalented can rise so far.

He was extremely talented at making the share price go up, at least for a while
posted by Sebmojo at 9:40 PM on April 2


All the money bleeds out upwards, all the risk and consequence bleeds out downward.

As a resident of the Southern Hemisphere, it's long been clear to me that this mental model of the economy is exactly upside down.

Any new money pumped into the economy quickly trickles down through it to pool up in the sump where the parasitic bottom-feeders live. There are not enough of them down there to keep it properly circulating and aerated, but they're big enough that their shit rots in place and the stinking miasma that rises up off it is toxic and suffocating to everybody else.

The correct cure does not involve draining the sump so much as putting it in majority public ownership so that it can be pumped out and sprayed out over the fields at a sustainable rate.

Occasionally hauling up one of the bigger bottom-feeders and hanging him out to dry wouldn't hurt either.
posted by flabdablet at 10:55 PM on April 2 [8 favorites]


Butwhataboutism is alive and healthy.

When somebody is expressing anxiety about dying on a flight it doesn’t seem irrelevant or unhelpful to mention that, irrespective of Boeing failures, air travel fatalities have been historically low in recent years. That doesn’t imply that the reason is Boeing in particular being good at building planes.
posted by atoxyl at 11:58 PM on April 2 [10 favorites]


Boeing has fallen for the same old problem safety and QA managers fight so often, it's practically the job description. The "we almost never have a problem, so why are we spending so much money on problem prevention" fallacy. It seems unnecessary when it's working (if you forget that that's how you got there and stay there).

I'm betting there's a metric for safety problems, and it's not zero, and someone's trying to get as close to it as possible without being over.
posted by ctmf at 12:48 AM on April 3 [6 favorites]


As this article goes to press, the safety record of Bomarc airlifts can be summed up in four words: so far, so good .... Chain Robbins, Safety Engineering Group Supervisor at Boeing, has put it this way: "One of the most unpleasant things about this business is the day you suddenly realize that many of the safety codes the Air Force and Industry have were generated out of tragedy -- someone killed, someone mangled for life. You might say one of the objectives of the safety movement, which got under way around 1911, is to generate codes from tests, studies of human reactions, statistical data, near misses, everything we can get, to prevent future tragedies from ever happening."


from "TOGETHERNESS" by Thomas Pynchon, in Aerospace Safety, 16: 12 (1960) pp.6-8.
posted by chavenet at 12:59 AM on April 3 [10 favorites]


I have one little regret in life, and that is when the CEO gathered us at work and told that we would have to outsource some of our engineering tasks to India to cut costs, I did not raise my hand and say "There are excellent MBA schools in India - how about we look to outsource management there, as management tend to be the highest salaried and thus has the highest cost cutting potential?"
posted by Harald74 at 1:03 AM on April 3 [44 favorites]


(We did hire a bunch of Indian engineers, very skilled and nice people, all of them, but we spent so much effort coordinating across the time zones and work cultures it effectively cancelled out the savings 1:1. I work somewhere else now.)
posted by Harald74 at 1:08 AM on April 3 [8 favorites]


Airbus… got working on the A220 to complement the new A320NEO

Airbus bought a majority share in the A220 (formerly CSeries) program from Bombardier for $1 because Bombardier was on the verge of financial collapse. Part of that was due to Boeing successfully lobbying the Trump government to put a 220% tariff on CSeries aircraft sold to Delta because Bombardier was selling them below initial cost to try to get market share.
While this is common practice with launch customers and was eventually defeated, the delay caused by the trade dispute was enough to sink an already foundering company, and the Boeing-Airbus Duopoly successfully defended its market.
posted by cardboard at 3:41 AM on April 3 [8 favorites]


The evidence does not support the "bean counters took Boeing away from the engineers and ruined it at Wall Street's behest!" narrative. McNerney became CEO in 2005, so it's been roughly 19 years since he took over. I checked a similar time period before he became CEO. The respective death counts in Boeing plane crashes (I didn't count hijackings or shootdowns):

1985-2004 (before McNerney): 5289*
2005-2024 (McNerney era): 2379*

More than double the number of people died in Boeings *before* McNerney became CEO than after: more in total, and more per year (~264 vs. ~119).

To make the comparison more specific, the incident that started the current kerfuffle (Alaska 1282) when its door blew out: no one died, 3 injured. In 1991, US Air flight 427 went down near Pittsburgh because the 737 had a fault in the design of its rudder: 132 people died. And that was the second crash caused by the faulty rudder (in the earlier one 25 people died)

Has Boeing gone all Wall Street? Maybe and maybe that's bad. But deaths are down and the engineering "golden age" everyone is talking about just simply did not exist.

(plane crash data from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_accidents_and_incidents_involving_commercial_aircraft )

* all math approximate. I can't guarantee I picked up on every Boeing crash.
posted by Galvanic at 7:28 AM on April 3 [6 favorites]


RIP Swampy.

I've seen versions of this story play out, with the engineers who care about customers fighting for years before giving up. They would leave or hide in some extremely technical corner of the organization that would pay them until they retired, and focus on their family.

There were a lot of health consequences. All of us were greatly diminished.
posted by constraint at 7:55 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]


I would say we could research the operations of all the companies that took the other path (make a great product and profits be damned) but unfortunately they have all gone out of business, so all this talk of “XYZ company used to put engineering first 😤” can just go on unopposed since 100% of the examples that actually did that no longer exist for some mysterious reason.
posted by Back At It Again At Krispy Kreme at 8:20 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]


"Actually, it's good that doors are blowing off planes in midair" is not a take I expected to see here.

I mean seriously so fucking what, they've gotten better at just injuring and terrifying passengers instead of straight up killing them? What if, and hear me out, they just actually did a good fucking job instead of cutting juuuuuuuuust enough corners to avoid becoming an actual slaughterhouse.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:42 AM on April 3


"Actually, it's good that doors are blowing off planes in midair" is not a take I expected to see here.

I’m going to be generous and assume that you posted in the wrong thread, because there’s absolutely nothing to that effect in this one.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:52 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]


Seems to me there's a bit of a gap between "profits be damned" and "unwilling to profit by reducing safety."
posted by nickmark at 9:50 AM on April 3


There is kind of an “actually the planes are better now” take though and I don’t think the evidence has been presented to support that. If you’re going to pick some random lethal defect from years ago to compare to, I’m pretty sure “the current kerfuffle” actually starts with the 737 MAX MCAS crashes, which killed 346 people.

My intuition would be that defective planes are probably not the biggest cause of fatal aviation accidents, in which case it’s perfectly possible for it to be simultaneously true that Boeing has cut too many corners in recent years and that air travel is nonetheless safer than ever. But if you want to make a rigorous claim about this you are going to have to look at all aviation failures over the years by cause (and manufacturer) not a handful of cherry-picked ones.
posted by atoxyl at 10:56 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]




The narrative I'm responding to is the one in which Boeing *used* to be a place where the engineers ruled supreme and put quality over profit, which made the planes safer, only to have Neo-corporate shills take over and put the share price above all.

And my point is that the evidence does not support that. I didn't "cherry-pick" examples, I looked at the period before McNerney arrived and the period after -- the same amount of time and all of the incidents that 1) concerned Boeing planes and 2) were not hijackings and shoot downs.

The results of that were what I mentioned -- that there were more than twice as many deaths on Boeing planes in the 20 years prior to 2005 than there were after. A heck of a lot of those crashes in the pre-2005 era were because of defective planes, though I didn't track those separately because it's often hard to tell immediately (if a plane engine falls off, is the plane defective? Maintenance?).

My larger conclusion from this is that a lot of this panic is being driven by the fact that in this social media/smart phone/video world we're hearing and seeing about a lot more minor accidents than we did previously and people are panicking about things that were routine in the 1980s. Adding in the neat "evil capitalism" narrative and you've got a culturally compelling combination.

Does Boeing have an issue it needs to deal with? Quite probably. Is it worse now than it was in the 1980s and 1990s? I seriously doubt it.
posted by Galvanic at 11:56 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


And my point is that the evidence does not support that. I didn't "cherry-pick" examples

The cherry-picking was giving one example of a mechanical defect (resulting in fatalities) from 30 years ago and contrasting it with the door blowout, as if recent scrutiny of Boeing had nothing to do with the sensor/software defects of just a few years ago that caused just as many fatalities. I’m not saying that I don’t believe you could be right, if we were to go and try to separate out pilot error from mechanical failure and manufacturer fault from maintenance fault - obviously I agree with the premise that air travel has really only become safer over the years. But that specific use of examples felt misleading enough that it rubbed me the wrong way.
posted by atoxyl at 1:01 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


More than double the number of people died in Boeings *before* McNerney became CEO than after: more in total, and more per year (~264 vs. ~119).
I'm sure your stats are fine and I'm not doubting them at all, but I don't agree with your reasoning. In my mind, there is a significant lag time between management decisions to reduce attention to quality in aircraft design and manufacture and accidents caused by the resulting faults. I admit I'm struggling to make that theory work over a 19-year timeframe, but I think it's reasonable given the longevity of aircraft models.

There's no doubt that air travel (in large commercial jets, at least) has become safer and continues to improve. But I won't be at all surprised if that starts to reverse once that lag between decision and consequence starts to run out. I also think there's too much focus on fatal accidents, where non-fatal 'incidents' may be a useful indicator of things to come. Either way, I continue to (unwillingly) spend time on planes criss-crossing the country without too much thought and I certainly don't make my ticketing decisions based on the model of the plane. While I don't have much faith in manufacturers, I do have a lot of faith in pilots who, because they're right there with me in the metal tube, have a lot of incentive to get back to the ground in an orderly and planned way.
posted by dg at 2:45 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


This archived Fortune article that was linked in a Previous post about Boeing suggests that "the first big mistake occurred under CEO Phil Condit, an engineer steeped in the tradition of caution, safety, and excellence in design. In 2001, Condit persuaded the board to relocate Boeing’s headquarters to Chicago from Seattle, where the C-suites were a short drive to the giant plants in Renton and Everett that generated the lion’s share of revenue." Condit was brought into the position in the late Nineties, so maybe a 25 year time frame makes more sense than your suggested 19 years.
posted by hippybear at 3:08 PM on April 3


> Galvanic: "More than double the number of people died in Boeings *before* McNerney became CEO than after: more in total, and more per year (~264 vs. ~119)."

For whatever it's worth, the usual metric for evaluating transportation fatalities is deaths per (million) passenger mile. This normalizes for things like distance travelled and numbers of trips. Also, for a proper comparison, we'd probably have to compare against other airplane manufacturers (which is, I guess, just Airbus and maybe Embraer at this point) in order to isolate Boeing-specific phenomena against larger, industry-wide phenomena (e.g.: if overall airplane safety has been improving, etc...).

Additionally, I would like to observe that at the end of 1987, out of the 3,476 planes in the operating fleet of major US airlines, 2,140 (~61%) were Boeing aircraft, 1,038 (~30%) were McDonnell Douglas, and only 65 (~2%) were Airbus. By the end of 2009, Airbus's share grew to ~22% (936/4186) of the US commercial operating fleet, while Boeing models held pretty steady at ~60% (2508/4186) and McDonnell Douglas models shrank to ~16% (682/4186).
posted by mhum at 3:51 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


More than double the number of people died in Boeings *before* McNerney became CEO than after: more in total, and more per year (~264 vs. ~119)

Okay, now do “near misses, parts failures, process failures, and quality escapes” over the same timespans.

The Boeing apologia is hilarious
posted by sixswitch at 4:35 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


Even were people to accept the premise that air travel now is safe and this is all narrative - spoiler, several don't accept, see above for why - there's a problem. Given the well-documented issues now with Boeing safety, culture, etc, and the clear avoidability of those problems if corner cutting wasn't institutionalised for profit, it implies acceptance - flying is numerically pretty safe, and that's safe enough to not bother doing things properly to improve it, so let's all just not have a go at our corporate leaders.

Doors are coming off inflight. Planes are failing for multiple reasons. People who know why and want to fix it are at best being fired. And more people will die than "need" to because of how the planes are made. Even had we improved, it isn't enough. And the only reasons for that now are corporate greed and institutional bullshit.
posted by onebuttonmonkey at 12:36 AM on April 4 [4 favorites]


Sorry about the lengthy post:

"The cherry-picking was giving one example of a mechanical defect (resulting in fatalities) from 30 years ago and contrasting it with the door blowout”

I feel a bit hard done by here because I started with a post that covered 20 years of data for both periods —- the example was just to highlight that data.

“In my mind, there is a significant lag time between management decisions to reduce attention to quality in aircraft design and manufacture and accidents caused by the resulting faults. I admit I'm struggling to make that theory work over a 19-year timeframe, but I think it's reasonable given the longevity of aircraft models.”

Fair enough. I looked at the last six years (2018-2023), which included both MCAS related crashes and compared it to the last six years before McNerney (1999-2004). The results:

1999-2004: 1096 fatalities in Boeing plane accidents
2018-2023: 673 fatalities in Boeing plane accidents.

So still substantially more in the pre-McNerney era. I freely admit that the data is incomplete and the comparison imperfect, but if you’re going to argue that there was a massive difference between pre- and post McNerney, you would think that the evidence would at least indicate it.

“For whatever it's worth, the usual metric for evaluating transportation fatalities is [deaths per (million) passenger mile](https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/home-and-community/safety-topics/deaths-by-transportation-mode/)."

Passenger miles traveled over the last 20 years (with the exception of 2020 and 2021) have been substantially higher than in the pre-2005 era, so using that metric would make things even worse for the pre-McNerney period.

“Okay, now do “near misses, parts failures, process failures, and quality escapes” over the same timespans

I’m not sure the argument that “hey many more people died pre 2005 but I bet there are lots of ‘process failures’ now!” is the ringing comeback you want it to be. In any case, if you’d like to use a different measure of the issue, you’re more than welcome to do your own research.

Doors are coming off inflight. Planes are failing for multiple reasons

Absolutely -- but I’m not sure looking back to an era where lots more people died is the solution we want.

“and that's safe enough to not bother doing things properly to improve it, so let's all just not have a go at our corporate leaders.”

How about “let’s actually figure out what’s going wrong so we can fix it instead of jumping on the nearest comforting neo-corporate narrative.” The joke about the drunk searching for his keys under the lamp post comes to mind.
posted by Galvanic at 6:43 AM on April 4 [2 favorites]


Two words. Neurotypical capture.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:01 AM on April 4 [3 favorites]


> Galvanic: "Passenger miles traveled over the last 20 years (with the exception of 2020 and 2021) have been substantially higher than in the pre-2005 era, so using that metric would make things even worse for the pre-McNerney period."

Indeed. That was kind of the point I was trying to convey: the landscape of commercial aviation has changed significantly over this time period thus comparisons like this need to be more carefully normalized to control for those changes. Passenger miles (at least in the US) have generally increased since deregulation in the late 70s but, at the same time, Boeing's share of passenger miles has changed (though with the MD merger, it may be a little delicate to define exactly which aircraft can be attributed to whom). More significantly, however, for a proper evaluation, we would need to separate out any "rising tide lifts all boats"-type phenomenon before attributing anything to an individual company or CEO.

Also, while the Prospect article focuses a lot on McNerney, among the handful of ex-Boeing people that I've encountered, they seem to push the blame further back to his predecessor, Harry Stonecipher. He was only CEO for 3 years but he was the one in charge when they moved the HQ to Chicago, explicitly tried to break the PNW unions by establishing non-union plants in S. Carolina, and, of course, the whole Dreamliner thing.
posted by mhum at 10:52 AM on April 4 [3 favorites]


It's really hard to use general statistics to determine whether there's a safety/quality problem because of all the industry-wide improvements. For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s, planes were being used for 20+ years for the first time in history, and so we started to have corrosion problems surface, where previously an airplane would become obsolete years before corrosion became an issue. There's also a better understanding of certain flaws to avoid, like the use of screw terminals on early 777 for the windshield heaters, leading to fires when the screws weren't tightened properly; the design was changed to use screwless terminals. We've also come to understand certain risks better, like cross-wind landings or holding patterns that are unnecessarily close to obstacles.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:02 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


I’m aware that all evidence is flawed. If someone on the “neo corporate ideology destroyed Boeing” side wants to present their evidence, I’ll be happy to discuss the flaws of that evidence as well.
posted by Galvanic at 5:33 PM on April 4


uh this is not a courtroom m’lud
posted by sixswitch at 9:58 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


That’s not what the bailiff at the door said.
posted by Galvanic at 2:56 PM on April 11


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