On November 18, 2020, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration cleared the Boeing 737 MAX for flight, but the history of how Boeing got to this point remains disturbing.1 Back in September 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives released a 238-page report on the 737 MAX debacle, concluding an 18-month investigation.5 The report blamed the two crashes in October 2018 (Lion Air, in Indonesia) and January 2019 (Ethiopian Airlines, in Ethiopia) on the computerized flight-control system called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). The 737 MAX had been Boeing's fastest-selling plane in history before government authorities worldwide grounded the fleet of nearly 400 aircraft—but only after the second crash. A technical system failure was the proximate cause of the disasters, which cost billions of dollars in losses to Boeing and the airlines, and, much more tragically, the lives of 346 passengers and crew.
Founded in 1916, Boeing remains one of the world's most renowned engineering companies. Were the 737 MAX crashes truly a failure of technology, an advanced aircraft-control system? Or was it a failure of management? Of course, at many levels, technology and management are inseparable. Nonetheless, executives, managers, and engineers at Boeing were not stumped by the complexity or unpredictability of a new technology. In a series of decisions, they put profits before safety, did not think through the consequences of their actions, or did not speak out loudly enough when they knew something was wrong. Let's look at the evidence.