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Late Night: Unfriendly Skies

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Back in the 90’s, I spent a summer in Seattle working on a project with a former Boeing engineer, and I remember being astonished (and a little alarmed) when he told me about working on the 747 line. “That plane’s been in production for over twenty years, and there are still hundreds of parts that don’t fit together,” he told me, “The guys on the line know exactly where you have to re-drill a hole or just bang the thing together with a mallet.”  We were remodeling a house at the time, so I could sympathize, but with a key difference: houses don’t have to fly through the air with hundreds of passengers (and screaming babies) on board.

The 747 had been a costly gamble for Boeing; its development coincided with the scuttling of the SST, leaving Boeing so weakened that there were rueful billboards around town that said, “Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?”   After cementing its monopoly by buying McDonnell Douglas in 1997 (some would say MD bought Boeing with Boeing’s money), the company became notoriously cheap and risk-averse, rapidly losing market share to its only rival, Airbus.

Of course, Boeing being a typical modern corporation, blamed its woes on uppity unions, Seattle’s supposedly poor business climate, and everything other than the fact that its bread and butter were aircraft designed in the 1960’s.  Their first great idea was to, you guessed it, bring back a scaled back SST, The Sonic Cruiser, since CEO’s always think the whole world cares about flying to Scotland for the weekend to play golf.  In the process, the company also set up a bidding war to move its headquarters elsewhere, never mind that its factories and an entire airport it owned were quite immobile.  It ended up in Chicago, inexplicably, especially to those who’ve ever had a holiday connection through O’Hare.

All along, but especially after Sept. 11, airlines were skeptical about the value of a faster jet; they were interested in something that would burn less fuel.  Enter the Dreamliner, which on paper at least, looked like a sure bet.  The composite (don’t call it plastic) fuselage not only made the plane lighter and thus 20% more fuel efficient, it enabled the plane to have larger (dimmable!) windows, higher ceilings, and more comfortable pressure and humidity in the cabin.  Pneumatic and hydraulic systems were converted to battery powered electricity, saving both weight and complexity.  What’s not to like?

Plenty, as it turns out.  The biggest “innovation” of the Dreamliner was that a mere 35% of its assembly was to take place in-house; the rest would be assembled by “partners,” who would share in the risks and rewards.  The finished plane could be banged together (literally, I’m sure) at the Everett plan in an astonishing three days, whereas traditional assembly had taken nearly a month.  Better yet, from a CEO standpoint anyway, a new plant had opened in Charleston, South Carolina, where no pesky union workers (who at least knew what they were doing) would get in the way of the huge profits Boeing could almost taste.

Unsurprisingly, this Randian dream, if you will, unraveled early and often.  Boeing lost all control of the production process, wasted billions, and delivered the plane more than three years late, only to be grounded, indefinitely, on Jan 18th.  It seems that even a captured and emaciated FAA still takes a decidedly dim view of fires aboard airplanes, especially those made of plastic, which is reassuring, I guess.  There are currently orders for 800 of these things of which a mere 50 have been delivered, but given that the largest purchaser, ANA of Japan, has already lost $15 million in the grounding, this number will undoubtedly start creeping downward in the weeks and months ahead.

Boeing’s woes, brought on almost entirely by such drearily typical corporate behavior, would be almost boring to dwell on, were they making, haphazardly, light bulbs (CEO Jim McNerney was a protege of GE’s Jack Welch, after all…) or, say, shower curtains.  But they’re not.  They’re making 200 million dollar AIRPLANES, in which the flying public must have absolute confidence, or the game is over.   Outsourcing, union-busting, and a general race to the bottom may make Wall Street swoon, but it isn’t the sort of thing that impresses travelers much, especially when they smell something burning and suddenly have to land someplace other than their intended destination.

Whenever someone asks me “How was your flight?”  I always answer by quoting Noel Coward:  “Aeronautically, it was a great success.  Socially, it left something to be desired.”

The Dreamliner, thanks to Boeing’s greed and idiocy, does it the other way around.   Good luck with that, Boeing.