A still from “Boeing’s Fatal Flaw,” a new FRONTLINE documentary with The New York Times.
Within the span of five months, 346 people were killed in two crashes involving Boeing 737 Max planes: first off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018 and then in Ethiopia in March 2019.
Boeing’s Fatal Flaw, a new FRONTLINE investigation with The New York Times, examines how commercial pressures, flawed design and failed oversight contributed to those devastating tragedies and a catastrophic crisis at one of world’s most iconic industrial names.
Here we take a brief look at what has happened to Boeing following the crashes.
Dennis Muilenburg had been CEO of Boeing since 2015. In the aftermath of the crashes, he testified before U.S. Senate and House committees in October 2019, acknowledging the fatal accidents happened “on my watch” and saying he and the company were accountable. He told the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, “If we knew back then what we know now, we would have grounded [the 737 Max] right after the first accident.”
Two months after the congressional hearings, on Dec. 23, 2019, Muilenburg was fired by Boeing. The company described the move as “necessary to restore confidence” in Boeing “as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders.”
David Calhoun stepped into the role of CEO in January 2020.
On Jan. 7 of this year, the Department of Justice announced that Boeing would pay a $2.5 billion settlement, resolving a DOJ charge that the company had conspired to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Evaluation Group.
The DOJ’s criminal investigation focused on the actions of two employees who Boeing said in court documents “deceived the FAA AEG” about the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) onboard the 737 Max — a system the DOJ said “may have played a role” in both 737 Max crashes. The DOJ said the employees’ “deception” led to information about MCAS being left out of a key document released by the FAA, as well as airplane manuals and pilot-training materials.
As Boeing’s Fatal Flaw recounts, congressional investigators found internal documents showing that, after Boeing realized the impact MCAS would have on pilot training and FAA certification, some Boeing employees suggested removing all references to MCAS from training manuals.
“Boeing’s employees chose the path of profit over candor by concealing material information from the FAA concerning the operation of its 737 Max airplane and engaging in an effort to cover up their deception,” said David P. Burns, the acting assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s criminal division when the settlement was announced.
The company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ, in which Boeing agreed to pay a nearly $244 million fine, to set up a $500-million fund for the families of people who died in the two crashes, and to pay $1.77 billion to airlines that had been affected by the 20-month grounding of the 737 Max that began in March 2019.
Boeing also agreed to continue cooperating with the DOJ’s Fraud Section on “any ongoing or future investigations and prosecutions” and is required to report any alleged violation of fraud laws by Boeing employees when dealing with foreign or domestic agencies, regulators or airline customers.
Boeing declined FRONTLINE’s request to be interviewed for the documentary. In a statement, the company said safety is its top priority and it has worked closely with regulators, investigators and stakeholders “to implement changes that ensure accidents like these never happen again.”
The criminal charge will be dropped in three years if the company follows the terms of the settlement.
House Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the settlement a “slap on the wrist” and said, “this attempt to change corporate behavior is pathetic and will do little to deter criminal behavior going forward.”
By November 2019, Boeing was facing more than 150 lawsuits filed by families of people who had died in the two crashes — over 50 of the suits stemming from the Indonesian crash and about 100 from the crash in Ethiopia, according to the Associated Press’ review of federal court records.
In July 2020, Boeing told a U.S. federal court that claims related to 171 of the 189 people killed in the Indonesia crash were either partially or fully settled, although the settlements were not publicly disclosed.
This July, a lawyer representing some of the families said the pandemic had left the court cases “at least a year behind.”
In the days after the second 737 Max crashed in March 2019, regulators around the world — from China to the European Union and several other countries — grounded the plane. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration followed suit on March 13, 2019, after initially saying the planes were safe to fly.
When the FAA retested and approved the 737 Max 8 and Max 9, ending the grounding in November 2020, it required airlines to take the following steps before putting the planes back into service: installing new flight-control-computer and display-system software; incorporating revised flight-crew procedures; rerouting wiring; completing a test of the “angle of attack” sensor system, which had contributed to both the 2018 and 2019 crashes; and performing an operational readiness flight.
The FAA, in conjunction with aviation agencies from Canada, Brazil and the European Union, also concluded that pilots operating the 737 Max would need to complete special training. It is not clear who would pay for this additional training, which reversed one of Boeing’s original sales pitches to airlines for the 737 Max: that the plane would require minimal pilot training.
A December 2020 Senate committee report criticized Boeing and the FAA’s handling of the 737 Max recertification testing, saying that, based on whistleblower information and testimony, it appeared Boeing and FAA officials had “established a pre-determined outcome,” and that Boeing officials “inappropriately coached” test pilots in the MCAS simulator. The report alleged, “It appears, in this instance, FAA and Boeing were attempting to cover up important information that may have contributed to the 737 MAX tragedies.”
The FAA responded at the time, saying: “Working closely with other international regulators, the FAA conducted a thorough and deliberate review of the 737 Max.” The agency added it was “confident” the issues that led to the two crashes had been “addressed through the design changes required and independently approved by the FAA and its partners.”
“We have learned many hard lessons” from the crashes, Boeing said in its own statement at the time. The company said it took the committee’s findings seriously and would continue to review the report in full.
Following the Senate report, families of the 2019 Ethiopian crash victims wrote to the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation in a letter dated Dec. 22, 2020, and reviewed by Reuters, asking for the 737 Max approval to be rescinded and for an investigation to “determine whether the MAX recertification process was tainted.”
A Brazilian airline was the first to fly a 737 Max after regulators there followed the FAA in ungrounding the plane. On Dec. 29, 2020 — a week after the families’ letter — the 737 Max flew paying passengers in America for the first time after nearly two years of being grounded. A month later, Europe’s aviation authority also gave the 737 Max clearance to fly.
On Aug. 26, 2021, India lifted its ban on the 737 Max after “closely” monitoring the plane’s performance elsewhere and noting “no untoward reporting.” As of publication, the 737 Max remains grounded in China.
On June 18 of this year, Boeing’s new model 737 Max 10 took to the skies for its first test flight. The Max 10 is larger than the Max 8, which was involved in the 2018 and 2019 crashes, and the Max 9. According to Boeing’s technical specs, the Max 10 is 14 feet longer than the Max 8 and can seat a maximum of 230 people, compared to the Max 8’s capacity of 210.
At the time of the test flight, Boeing was already working on additional safety features in the Max 10 requested by European regulators, according to Reuters.
“We’re going to take our time on this certification,” Stan Deal, who became president and CEO of Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes division in October 2019, said at the time of the Max 10’s first flight, according to The Seattle Times. “We’re committed to make further safety enhancements.”
The Max 10 is expected to start flying passengers in 2023.
In March 2021, Boeing received the largest order for 737 Max aircrafts since the flight ban was lifted. Southwest Airlines ordered 100 of the 737 Max 7s, “converting orders for 70 Max 8s to the smaller model,” according to the Associated Press. The airline, which maintains an all-Boeing fleet, had publicly considered ordering planes from Airbus — Boeing’s competitor — but ultimately stuck with Boeing.
In June, United Airlines announced what it described as the largest aircraft order in its history. It was purchasing 270 planes, 200 of them from Boeing — 50 of which would be 737 Max 8s and 150 of the new 737 Max 10. The purchase was described in news reports as “another vote of confidence” for Boeing, “accelerating a recovery” and “a boost for Boeing’s 737 MAX.”
Aviation industry analysts told FRONTLINE that Boeing is currently at a disadvantage — compared to its main competitor, Airbus — because it hasn’t developed new planes to satisfy market demands while recovering from the 737 Max crisis.
Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, the vice president of analysis at Teal Group who has consulted for both Boeing and Airbus in the past but is not currently on contract with either, said that after the 737 Max disasters, there has been an “under-resourcing of engineering and new product development” at Boeing, coupled with a focus on “returning cash to shareholders.”
Aboulafia said Airbus’ current models put the company in the right place at the right time and are “driving a significant market shift away from Boeing and towards Airbus. And so what was 50-50 for decades is quickly becoming 60-40 and possibly worse for Boeing.”
The year after the second 737 Max crash, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a huge blow to the entire industry. Aboulafia described the pandemic as “the most devastating crisis the civil aviation industry has ever seen, by an enormous margin.”
According to Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, an aviation industry research company, the pandemic’s impact on the aviation industry both “shrouded” the 737 Max crisis and gave Boeing and its airline customers more time to figure out and fix problems with the 737 Max.
Harteveldt, who says he has never consulted for Boeing or Airbus, said airline passengers are not avoiding the 737 Max en masse. “That’s not to say that there aren’t isolated incidents of travelers who may have concerns about flying on the plane,” he said. “But that’s the exception, not the rule.”
“Boeing has built its business based on designing and building and selling safe aircraft,” Harteveldt said. “There’s no question that the 737 Max was a black eye for the company, and there may still be a little bit of bruising left, but I think Boeing has weathered the worst of the storm, at least as far as the 737 Max is concerned.”
Watch Boeing’s Fatal Flaw, a FRONTLINE investigation with The New York Times, in full below.
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A still from “Boeing’s Fatal Flaw,” a new FRONTLINE documentary with The New York Times.