Boeing’s Mistake

Aviators and aviation fans who follow the news know that recent months have not gone at all well for American passenger aircraft manufacturer Boeing. Two Boeing 737 passenger jets crashed in recent months, both brand new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, killing a total of 338 people.

The entire 737 MAX fleet has been grounded since the second crash. Subsequent investigations have pointed to the jet’s new MCAS system, a computer-controlled device intended to tame the aerodynamic difficulties that came about from the necessity of adding bigger, more powerful engines that didn’t quite fit under the low ride of the original 737, engines that had to be reshaped and moved forward and upward on their mounts.

The whole idea of putting big engines on this jet has its limits, and, as we are now seeing, has a huge consequence.

Where am I going with this? In the 1980s and 1990s, Boeing built an excellent, powerful, reliable, narrow-bodied jet that, had it been nurtured and developed within its role among airliners, would have been perfect in the role the 737 MAX is trying to occupy: the Boeing 757.

Boeing built the 757 from the start to serve to 200 to 295 passenger market. It featured a large, ahead-of-its-time wing, and huge, fuel-efficient engines. It was a beautiful aircraft, and remains a workhorse jet for airlines like Delta, American, Fed Ex, and UPS,  who are looking without success for a replacement for the 757.

The problem arises from Boeing’s short-term thinking. When 757 sales slumped, Boeing abandoned it, and tried to work stretched 737’s to take its place. The real answer would have been to make the 757 a priority, in engineering, performance, efficiency, and reputation. Let the 737 be the perfect plane for Denver to Sioux City, then position the 757 for Houston to Seattle.

The same thing happened to precipitate the 737 MAX debacle: when airlines told Boeing they needed a “new” jet right now, Boeing decided to abandon any new designs and “MAX” the 737, a jet that fundamentally dates back to 1963.

I know: who am I to talk but a business dilettante? But I’ve been right a few times about this and that: MySpace, Radio Shack, JC Penney, Sears, Wards, Hipstamatic. And it’s absolutely valid for me to make observations about the business world in which huge, thriving corporations are driven into dust by MBAs who should know better than I.

A Boeing 737 Classic makes a touch-and-go-landing at Ada Regional Airport recently.
A Boeing 737 Classic makes a touch-and-go-landing at Ada Regional Airport recently.

1 Comment

  1. Your assessment sounds reasonable, given what little i know of these models. I would add that Boeing has actively participated in the general business culture of making new things that aren’t necessarily needed for anything but profit. And an awful lot of these new products are pushed on customers before they’re fully vetted.

    If it’s a phone, the only real downside is wasted money and time. But when it’s a passenger jet, lives hang in the balance.

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