Boeing is In Regulatory Hell, Struggling to Deliver New Aircraft

Boeing, Government Regulation

The 737 MAX certification travesty quite literally has left blood on the hands of both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and that has resulted in the company and the agency each taking a deep internal look to fix the root of the problem. But now, there’s a new issue… all of this tumult has resulted in significant delays to certification of new aircraft and even trouble with existing ones. This combined with a likely overcorrection by the FAA means airlines are not getting their airplanes when they need them. And they are really pissed off.

I don’t need to rehash the MAX disaster in detail, but I will summarize. The aircraft was certified with a woefully-underdeveloped MCAS system that, if a single sensor detected speed improperly, would try to plunge the airplane into the ground. It succeeded twice, both with Lion Air 610 on October 29, 2018 and Ethiopian 302 on March 10, 2019. A combined 346 people lost their lives due to an entirely preventable failure.

Despite early attempts to blame poor pilot training, the blame eventually landed exactly where it should have. First, Boeing was rightly raked over the coals for a shockingly sloppy design. The MCAS should never have been programmed to function off a single sensor’s reading without any redundancy. It also shouldn’t have been designed to repeatedly engage time and time again. While Boeing absolutely made several fatal mistakes in its design, the fault also falls on to the FAA, which certified the aircraft in the first place.

It didn’t take long for the certification process to fall under fire, noting that the FAA was not regulating Boeing nearly enough, instead basically giving the company carte blanche to certify itself. There was too much trust in a process that was flawed to begin with.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, formerly an exec with Delta, promised to fix the organization, and that means things have slowed down dramatically. But before I get into that, I have to preface this by saying that all of the conspiracy theories out there ring hollow to me. Yes, Steve Dickson was previously an exec with Delta. No, Delta does not have any Boeing aircraft on order from the manufacturer. And no, I don’t think he’s doing anything to help his former employer by negatively impacting its competitors. That would be madness. He’s simply trying to be thorough and seemingly doing too good of a job in that regard.

So where do we stand today? Well, when it comes to passenger airplanes, Boeing can only deliver the 737 MAX 8/9 and the 777-300ER. That’s it now that the last passenger 747-8 has left the factory. Yes, MAX 8s and 9s are flying out of the factory, finally, but this means the 737 MAX 7, the MAX 10, and the 787s all can’t be delivered, and that is not going over well.

737 MAX 7 and MAX 10

The 737 MAX 7 is the smallest version of the MAX family, and it is only slightly larger than the 737-700. This airplane was a one-airline show until recently. Southwest has over 200 on order and has decided this will be the replacement for the -700s — with 150 vs 143 seats — as they continue to age. The only other significant order came from WestJet for 13 of the airplanes… until Allegiant, which we just discussed yesterday. It has 30 coming with options for more.

The MAX 7 is basically the MAX 8 with a shorter body and longer range. It has some other differences, but as I understand it, it was similar enough to the MAX 8 that it was used for part of the certification work for that airplane.

Southwest had hoped to have the MAX 7 flying long ago, but here we are in 2022 and the FAA still has not certified the airplane. You will be shocked to know that Southwest is very unhappy about this. As still-CEO Gary Kelly said in an interview with Bloomberg, “Frustration is the right word. It’s a different regulatory environment. A lot of duties that used to be delegated are vested with the FAA, and they are just getting used to that.”

The article also notes that Southwest is now hoping for certification in the first quarter of this year, but then it’ll take several months to put the airplane into service.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the 737 MAX 10 caught in the same mess. This is the largest aircraft in the MAX family with a length that’s not even 12 feet shy of a 757-200. It’ll seat around 200 in a regular two-class configuration. This aircraft has a whole lot more orders with United leading the way with just over 250. According to ch-aviation, VietJetAir has 106 on order, flydubai and Lion Air both have 50, and both Gol and Virgin Australia have 25.

The MAX delays seem to sit more squarely on the FAA than on Boeing at this point. I can’t quite understand what the hold up is, but it doesn’t seem like there’s any substantial concern about the aircraft. It’s just bureaucracy and overconcern about the FAA’s role. This is very different than what’s happening to the 787.

787

The first 787 was delivered in 2011, and there have been more than 1,000 delivered ever since. In 2019, more than 150 were delivered, but then in October 2020, the spigot shut off. In the 15 months since that time, only 14 airplanes have been delivered. What’s going on? So, so much. This podcast from Aviation Week tells the story well.

There are several issues here, but the biggest one seems to be the tiny amount of space between parts where there is a major join on the aircraft. There is always space between parts, but it is virtually imperceptible. Apparently Boeing ran into problems where it wasn’t exactly to spec, so it had to fix and then do more inspections. That kept finding more gaps that were out of conformance in different areas, and now they basically go over every airplane with a fine-toothed comb.

Apparently this is not a safety of flight issue, and so all those airplanes that are flying today can keep flying. The bigger issue, according to the podcast, appears to be that this can reduce the life of the airframe, and that is not going to be ok with Boeing’s customers. Boeing needs to get its act together in this regard, and then the FAA needs to let them start delivering airplanes again. It’s unclear when that logjam might clear, but until that happens, it’s bad news.

This is why American had to slash its summer schedule this year. It simply can’t get the 787s it needs. It is not happy, and it is not alone.

777X

The final piece of the puzzle is the 777X, the behemoth that is larger than a 777 but smaller than a 747. There are over 300 of these airplanes on order, with Emirates taking up more than 100. Qatar has 60, Singapore has 31, and there are plenty of others with less than that.

This is a new airplane, and the entry into service continues to slip. Boeing is now predicting the airplane will be 3 years late, in service by late 2023. And even that may be too soon in reality.

According to Boeing, the FAA went back and looked at the airplane and asked for some changes to be considered. In other words, the FAA is again covering its bases, showing that it has done its job, at least outwardly. And now Boeing is planning to just test the hell out of this airplane so it can get into service and not have further trouble.

Guess who isn’t happy about this? Emirates. The 777X is a big airplane that will be a great eventual replacement for the A380. But Emirates wants those airplanes now, and continues to hammer on Boeing for failing to deliver as promised. That’s a tough stance considering that Boeing seems to be stuck on this one, waiting for the FAA to be satisfied. Who knows when that might happen.


You can certainly say some of this is Boeing’s own fault, because, well, it absolutely is. But it does seem like the FAA has overcorrected after its MAX failure, and that is putting a real squeeze on Boeing’s customers. They aren’t happy. In the future, it seems manufacturers are just going to have to accept longer development timelines as part of the cost of doing business. For now, Boeing is caught in the middle.

32 comments on “Boeing is In Regulatory Hell, Struggling to Deliver New Aircraft

  1. I think you made the case that “[at least] some of this is Boeing’s own fault”. I dont think you made the case that the FAA is overcorrecting.

    As to the airlines, they can always bring back their older 757s and 767s and 777s if they really want to fly to destinations (the Arizona Cardinals NFL team just bought a used former Delta 777, after all). The airlines are choosing not to reactivate those older already-paid-for planes, so they must not be *that* unhappy about the delays.

    I would prefer the FAA take their time and get it right.

    1. It’s also worth noting that no senior Boeing leaders took any blame when they should have been jailed for a year or two.

  2. Cranky,
    How much of Boeing’s problems can be attributed to their decision years ago to take the decision making from Engineering to the HQ?

    1. Angry Bob – I can’t say I know the answer myself, but I’d assume it plays a part. There are books that have been written on this topic and undoubtedly there will be more.

  3. Yeah, I don’t see Boeing bringing any new airplanes in the the near (10-20 year) future. By the time they are certified, they be so dated airbus will leap frog them ever time. With the current mix they have to continue to bow to the FAA till they are certified because it would cost too much to stop… the government does nothing well. The FAA is a prime example.

  4. Sure seems like Boeing’s problems started when the company merged with McDonnell Douglas and largely let McDonnell Douglas management and board and accounting focus dominate the combined company. Moving the HQ away from Seattle was unnecessary and counterproductive and the company simply lost touch.

    How many of the 787 issues are due to the fact that Boeing threw away the institutional knowledge and worker skill and experience in Everett and moved it to non-union South Carolina which had no heritage in aircraft manufacturing? Lots of errors coming from that decision.

    1. Carl – I don’t think it’s an Everett vs Charleston thing. This sounds like a company that just hasn’t figured out the automation to work as well with composite airframes yet. I don’t believe it’s a manual worker issue.

      1. Random anecdote. After the first 737 Max crash, before the second one, I happened to meet Dave Calhoun at a cocktail party. At the time he was a Boeing board member, he hadn’t yet been made chairman or CEO. I told him that I thought Boeing had a big problem on its hands, and that I felt the Boeing didn’t have the understanding to manage software projects properly. The two examples that I gave him were MCAS and the 787 battery charging software. In the case of MCAS for the 737 Max, it should never have passed a software design review to have a design that had two sensors and that the software operated on the reading of one sensor without regard of the other sensor’s reading. It’s simply unfathomable and indicates that management had no idea how to manage software projects. Similarly it is virtually certain that the problem with 787 lithium batteries catching fire had to do with the charging software. Software would have been able to deal with flaws in individual cells. Boeing never did a true root cause analysis and instead built steel boxes for the batteries. That’s not really a great solution. At the time that I met Calhoun I don’t think the board had any idea of the depth of Boeing’s problems, and I do think that HQ was too far removed from engineering and the factories.

  5. Your conclusion sentence: “For now, Boeing is caught in the middle.” is inaccurate, in my estimation. What is Boeing caught in the middle of? They are paying the price for their debacle. The folks who are truly “caught in the middle” of this are the air carriers who have ordered the aircraft. If I were Southwest, I would be making a strong case for discounts/damages due to Boeing’s inability to make their delivery dates.

    The FAA, at least in the case of the 737-MAX7, is dragging its feet. The 737-MAX8 is once again certified and has flown millions of hours, worldwide, since recertification. As you noted, the differences between the two, as far as aircraft systems are concerned, is negligible. Presumably, the same engines on a shorter airframe. The 737-MAX7 testbed aircraft have been flying for YEARS now, all around the planet. Certainly, those testbed aircraft have provided enough data for the FAA to sign off on the aircraft.

  6. This is what you get when industry is allowed to regulate itself. In this case an airplane that wasn’t ready for prime time that had two fatal crashes & a FAA that was asleep at the throttle. So now the FAA is done a complete 180 on certification of future Boeing aircraft & everyone is pissed.

    I wouldn’t cry for Boeing however, as they are making out like bandits with defense contracts year after year.

  7. The primary issue impacting Boeing is that they were given the privileged position of being self-regulated and self-reporting to the FAA and they blew it on multiple occasions. Regulators have to check off the work of many companies but airlines and aerospace companies, because of their long history and generally strong relationships with regulators, have been allowed to monitor their own products and report to the FAA. Boeing broke that trust w/ MCAS and the emails and text messages that came out proved that. Boeing tried to throw their chief test pilot under the bus to cover their tracks but when the same issues have come up w/ the 787, it points to systemic problems at Boeing. By having to not just step in and watch Boeing much more closely, the FAA is tasked w/ figuring out why and how these breakdowns of quality control occurred and ensure they are corrected – so Boeing can return to self-regulation. The fact that there have been repeated problems w/ the 787, esp. those produced in Charleston, says that Boeing might have gotten out “ahead of its skis” on some of the work it has done. So, yes, Boeing is in a difficult position even when its current products are not all-new designs. FAA credibility is on the line in getting Boeing back on track but much less so than giving Boeing the freedom to self-regulate which it did not handle correctly.

    It is also worth noting that the same process of self-reporting is used in the pharmaceutical industry and it is the covid vaccine manufacturer data that is shaping US policy. Other countries are doing their own independent, government funded research while the US heavily relies on drug companies to do their own research and present it to the government for approval. The approach used w/ Boeing is not unique but it may not be the best for the interests of the country or the world which do buy US-made products.

    1. You’re absolutely spot on regarding the way self-reporting is used in pharma. I’m actually in the pharma industry and unfortunately this approach is definitely NOT in the best interest for the country. The pharma industry has way too much lobbying power and influence over the FDA. The FDA is funded 50-70% by the pharmaceutical industry. That alone says a lot.

  8. The FAA got complacent and was too trusting of Boeing and it blew up in their faces. So, as is a natural effect of things like this, they are somewhat overreacting by doing the opposite of what got them into trouble. Yes, the MAX debacle was Boeing’s fault – for letting Wall Street dictate aircraft development rather than engineers. They cut corners, all to please the stock weasels. But, the FAA gave them enough rope to hang themselves. Now, they aren’t going to be making that mistake again and we see the results. Ultimately, this entire debacle is Boeing’s fault.

    And, by the way, from what I’m hearing, the 787’s that some out of Charleston are not built nearly as well as those that were assembled in Renton. Yet, Boeing (continuing their record streak of horrible decisions) decided to move all production there. So round and round we go. Boeing used to be the gold standard for aircraft quality. Now, it’s a name synonymous with scandal and corner cutting. What a shame.

    1. AngryFlier – I agree with you that this is Boeing’s responsibility aided and abetted by a sloppy relationship with the FAA. But, it wasn’t just Wall Street that pressured Boeing. It is interesting to note that in his recent excellent book “Air Wars”, author Scott Hamilton attempted to interview executives of one of the U.S. majors and they refused to talk, or respond to his questions. That pressure on Boeing from a major customer also contributed to the disasters, and the situation we are dealing with today.
      Again, you are correct – Boeing was the gold standard. We will never see those days again without a change in the board of directors leadership at Boeing.

      1. I don’t doubt that Airlines were pressuring Boeing to deliver, but that doesn’t excuse Boeing’s decisions at all. Customers are always entitled to press vendors to deliver what they want, when they want, at a price they want. It’s a vendor’s responsibility to defend its finite resources to the client and stand by where the clients will be satisfied and where they’ll have to live with disappointment.

  9. What’s the process for regulatory approval for Airbus with the FAA? Will they have any of the same problems getting planes certified or does the FAA accept EASA’s decision? If anyone has a link to a good article about the subject I’d be interested in learning about it.

    1. The US, Canada and EU generally recognize each other’s right to certify their own aircraft. Although the A320 family and A220 families are built in the US, the original certifications were done in the “home countries” for those manufacturers. Of course, the US can and does inspect Airbus facilities in the US and other countries issued their own groundings and re-approvals of the MAX which did not coincide completely with the US

  10. I really don’t think there should be any sympathy for Boeing here. They have put themselves in this position with a focus on short-term gain and destroyed their own ability to compete with Airbus in core segments of the market in the long run (I think we can forget about things like the NMA happening now that Boeing is being forced to focus on paying the price for its short-sightedness).

    As for the airlines, they have a right to be angry at the manufacturer. Boeing promised an aggressive timeline that was dependent on a high degree of self-regulation and now they are unable to deliver because the assumptions of that timeline no longer hold. But at the same time, airlines that ordered MAX 7’s and MAX 10’s after the grounding and re-certification of the MAX got a good deal for a reason: a vote of confidence in the airplane was needed. Because the aircraft needed a vote of confidence, there’s a risk of something like this happening which should be reflected in the low prices.

    Due to the concentrated nature of expertise in aviation, there is always likely going to be some degree of regulatory capture and self-regulation at least in the United States. I’d much rather see the FAA applying the brakes and being more thorough as a new balance is trying to be achieved than being phobic about over-correcting because of how it would affect Boeing’s pockets or their competitiveness against Airbus. As for the manufacturing timeline, airlines and Boeing are going to have to accept that it will be longer at least in the short run (and plan accordingly) until the FAA can figure out a way to apply a stricter standard of regulation more efficiently, if this is even possible. The previous way of doing things saw Boeing knowingly producing problematic airplanes that were susceptible to have battery fires or plunge themselves into the ground, leading to reactive groundings instead of proactive fixes.

  11. Years ago, Boeing made a simple calculation: the cost of re-tooling the 737 into the MAX was more profitable than a clean-sheet design. At least, that’s what they thought when they made the decision. Perhaps in the future they will consider the long-term costs of short-term profit. I imagine they are feeling it pretty hard right now — super bummer for them. They gambled on the MAX and lost about as bad as you can lose. Perhaps in the future don’t take such risky bets?

    1. As much as I love to bash Boeing for keeping the 737 around too long, it’s not all their fault. Certain airlines, like Southwest don’t want a new design. They prefer to keep the same plane with updates despite it being almost 55 years old.

      1. It’s entirely Boeing’s fault. It’s their responsibility as a vendor to not let a single customer overdrive their roadmap. Sometimes, you need to produce a good solution for the market, even if it’s not exactly what a specific customer wants.

    2. A clean sheet design was and is not needed. Please stop with the “we have to accept slower growth, more regulation and less profit” like most of the EU and other developed economies do comments. I for one don’t want to live in the slower growth, lower margin, more regulated, less innovative EU. The MAX decision would have turned out great, if not for the botched MCAS implementation. The A32XNEO is a 40 year old design with a primitive fly by wire system, should they have also gone for a clean sheet?

  12. And, lets not even start talking about how badly Boeing has screwed up the manned Starliner spacecraft, and all that government money that has been squandered on an over budget and years late design that has been nothing but a failure.

    1. …and the KC-46 tanker, which is also years late, over budget and STILL isn’t fully mission capable.

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Cranky Flier