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Taken for granted – a pilot love affair gone sour…

I’d admired this stately and graceful ‘lady’ for a long time. An icon of the century I was born into, she had an impeccable reputation, remaining reliable and unflustered even in difficult circumstances.

When I finally got together with her, after years of trying, she couldn’t have been more fun to work with, charming people wherever in the world we went – it was literally a dream come true. Sadly, she is now well on the way to retirement ahead of me, and will soon be rarely seen out in public. 

I am talking, of course, of the Boeing 747. It first peaked my interest as a boy, often used as a symbol of human progress and the best of design. I later discovered my grandfather had helped build the prototype of the new RB-211 jet engines that were fitted to the 747-400s my airline operated. An association to be proud of! 

Having joined my airline on the short haul operation, my annual transfer preference was to the 747 every year from as soon as I joined. Five years later, I got the golden ticket and commenced training on the ‘Queen of the Skies’. I loved every minute flying with her. 

Compared to the software devoted technocrats who built the very worthy, but dull, A320s I fly now, the people who built those 747s really knew how to build a good aeroplane.

They also built the 757, beloved of those who flew it, and the original workhorse of the jet age, the Boeing 737. The last effort from this school of engineering was the perhaps less handsomely proportioned 777. But I remember seeing video of it enduring the roughest of treatment in a well-known recent accident – the Asiana flight 214 crash at San Francisco international airport – it literally bounces off the ground, cartwheels, and falls back to earth intact. Every pilot I know saw it and thought the same thing: “Boy, that airplane is tough! Those folks really know how to build a good aircraft…”. I imagine we all shared the thought that if you ever had to be on an airliner in such a horrific situation, you wanted to be on that one.

“If it ain’t a Boeing, I ain’t going!” 
“They build planes for pilots, by pilots.”

In terms of trust and brand strength amongst the pilots who used their aircraft day in, day out, these and similar oft heard phrases demonstrated Boeing had it nailed. We loved them.

And then something happened.

I can’t tell you what, but it definitely did. Maybe it was the divorce of Boeing corporate HQ from its engineering soul in Seattle to the financiers of Chicago. Maybe it was caught up in the wave of degenerate corporate culture that ran up to the 2008 global financial crisis. Maybe they just took their brilliant planes, their fabulous safety record, and their loving, loyal pilots for granted after years of having it all.

But the ‘love affair’ started going sour. I think – and this is a very personal view – that it really started with the 787. Certainly, the record shows that this is about the time when corporate lobbying, to outsource oversight from the FAA to the company that was supposedly being overseen, really started to peak. When the view seemed to take hold that Boeing knew best, that commercial considerations and speed to market were king. When the decision to sidestep an incredibly experienced, talented and loyal workforce in Seattle and seek quick, non-unionised hires in an anti-labour jurisdiction to build these new aeroplanes was taken. Numerous exposés paint a picture of a management not interested in its workforce at Boeing’s Carolina plant, slapping down safety queries and concerns, and simply focussing on getting a commoditised product out to customers.

And it is here that the commonly heard comments from pilots start to reflect that. 

“Oh, so you’re training on the Airfix model?” 
“Careful not to play with matches on there!” 
“Don’t forget to take some superglue in case it breaks!”

The 787’s initial teething troubles with incendiary batteries, and composite structures are well known. Rumours abound about some airlines only accepting aircraft built at its original manufacturing site.

And so to the Boeing 737 MAX. The failings of this aircraft have been extensively covered, and I won’t repeat them here. The accidents absolutely should never have happened, they were not down to some unforeseeable novel technical problem, but the inescapable outcome of a chain of choices and decisions from the top down, from people who should have known better. 

As a lifelong Boeing fan though, what I keep turning over in my head is, “What was going on in the mind of my beloved Boeing to permit this aircraft to enter service like this?” “What is still in their mindset to behave as they have through the return to service, even though everyone is watching and knows what they’ve been doing?” “When are they going to have their ‘lightbulb’ moment, the ‘click’ behind their eyes, where they finally ‘get it’?” Because until this happens, there’s no coming back.

We still see attempts, some obvious and some more subtle, to try and frame the problem as being with ‘assumptions about how pilots will handle things’. Or ‘pilots with differing cultures/training backgrounds/experience levels to the US’. Or ‘a need to re-evaluate pilot reaction times to be factored in’. All of it sounds like code for ‘if only the pilots were up to scratch, we could’ve got away with it’.

Firstly, this isn’t true. Secondly, it sits very uncomfortably with attempts to sell to pilots that the redesigned aeroplane is just fine and they should be ambassadors for it to reassure a sceptical public. 

But lastly, and most importantly, it looks for all the world like deflection and denial. Boeing will not get its house in order or its friends back until it drops this and looks at itself hard in the mirror. 

While it incentivises its CEO with millions of dollars to get the MAX back in the air – rather than to fix its corporate culture, rather than ask the people using its products what they think is wrong and it can do better (and then do this), rather than value the incredible resource of its core engineering workforce, it is hard to believe it has looked hard enough in that mirror.

Pilots loved Boeing and even though it has taken safety for granted, taken the quality of its aircraft for granted, and taken its pilots for granted, we all want it to come back, to see that amazing planemaker of old walk again through our door. But while it repeats the age-old excuse: “It wasn’t me!”, it isn’t going to happen.

First it needs to bare its soul, be transparent, so we can see it realise where it’s done wrong, see it fix these things. It should be desperate for regulators to give it the toughest examination they can. It has lost the trust and confidence of its biggest fans, and that has to be earnt back with transparency, action, and putting in some tough work. Boeing doesn’t have the credibility to prove or sell this itself, only independent scrutiny can provide that, and better than even the most extensive PR.

When will they ‘get it’, so I can risk falling for their wonderful planes again? 

I can’t say, but I’ll know it when I see it, and I’ll be a very happy pilot if I do.


Capt. Jon Horne, ECA President