Boeing’s lessons for school boards and leaders

On the evening of 5th January 2024, a fairly new Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 MAX was flying from Portland (Oregon, USA) on a flight to Ontario (California, USA).  It was still over suburban Portland, climbing just above 4,500 metres altitude, when one of the cabin windows/emergency exit plugs and its holding panel separated from the aircraft, together with parts of one un-occupied seat (26A), leaving a gaping hole in the side of the aircraft.  As the plane rapidly depressurised, a boy sitting in row 26 had his t-shirt sucked off him while his mother held on to him to prevent him being sucked out of the airliner as well.  Several phones and some unsecured hand luggage were sucked out of the plane before it returned to Portland and landed about 20 minutes after take-off.  Miraculously, no injuries were reported – almost certainly because no passengers happened to be sitting in seats 26A and 26B at the time – even though an entire panel on the left-hand side of the aircraft was missing!

Subsequent investigations suggested that the fault occurred because several bolts that secure the exit panel plug to the plane had not been installed when Boeing had worked on the aircraft prior to its delivery to Alaska Airlines.

In a press conference on 10th January, the CEO of Boeing, David Calhoun, admitted that the blowout on the Alaska Airlines aircraft had been caused by a “quality escape”.  At the direction of the FAA, inspections were conducted on all Boeing 737-9 MAX aircraft in service with all airlines, and both United Airlines and Alaska Airlines found loose door bolts in a number of their aircraft.

The Boeing 737 MAX 9 of Alaska Airlines that lost its door plug during an in-flight incident on 5th January 2024.  Photo: Kyle Rinker / Reuters.

(Kyle Rinker/Reuters)

“Quality escape” seems like a somewhat trivial euphemism for a manufacturing fault that almost killed 171 passengers and six crew on an airliner.  Quite rightly, Calhoun has been criticised for drawing upon such a bland euphemism, with words like “bizarre” and “tone deaf” being used by journalists, commentators and airline passengers.

Perhaps surprisingly, school boards and leaders can learn several important points from Boeing’s mishaps.  In order to appreciate the full significance and relevance of these lessons, however, it is important to know a little more about the background to Boeing’s problems with the 737 MAX.  The Alaska Airlines incident was not an isolated occurrence – it was just one element of an escalating crisis Boeing has faced for more than a decade with their 737 MAX airliners.  

Boeing's challenges with the 737 MAX arose from in part its rushed introduction.  In 2011, American Airlines was on the verge of ordering a large fleet of airliners from Boeing’s major competitor, Airbus.  This competitive pressure led to Boeing’s hurried decision to abandon plans for a new ‘clean sheet’ airliner it was developing and rush development of an updated version of its long-established 737 airliner, the first version of which had flown some 45 years earlier in 1967.  The result was the 737 MAX.

The hectic timeframe which followed, together with insistence from another large customer (Southwest Airlines) that the new model include as few changes as possible from earlier 737 models to simplify pilot training and maintenance, seems to have led to poor build quality and major design flaws.  One particular challenge was finding a way to fit new, larger diameter engines under the wings.  Rather than lengthening the undercarriage, which would have then required other expensive re-design and regulatory changes, Boeing’s “cheap and easy” solution was to mount the engines forward and in front of the wings.  This changed the centre of gravity of the plane, so to restore stability and the handling characteristics to resemble earlier models (to reduce the cost of transitional pilot training to the new model), Boeing developed a software solution known as MCAS (the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System).

MCAS was intended to address the new aircraft’s tendency to pitch upwards by forcing the nose downwards to prevent a stall when sensors indicated the need to do so. Unfortunately, Boeing didn’t include any information about MCAS in its pilot manuals, nor did it fully disclose the way it worked to the regulators when they certified the new model.  MCAS subsequently played a central role in causing two fatal crashes – Lion Air Flight JT610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 in March 2019 – which together killed all 346 people on board.  Although Boeing tried to blame the airlines’ maintenance procedures and poor pilot training, investigations revealed that inaccurate sensor readings triggered the MCAS, causing the planes to nosedive uncontrollably (some commentators say the planes behaved like lawn darts). These tragic incidents resulted in the global grounding of all 737 MAXs, substantial financial setbacks for Boeing, increased regulatory scrutiny, and a comprehensive reassessment of the aircraft’s design and safety protocols.

So what can school boards learn from Boeing’s experience with the 737 MAX?  I suggest there are at least ten “takeaways” for school leaders:

1.    Prioritise Quality Over Finances:

Boeing has been widely criticised for prioritising profits and timelines over safety concerns.  Rather than investing in new products over the past decade or more, Boeing used its surpluses to inflate its stock market value through share buybacks, a strategy that was directly fuelled by the finance-driven KPIs given to its managers by the board.  School boards should ensure that the quality of education and the safety of the school community are the top priorities in educational environments, and focus on these as KPIs rather than financial returns, even if it means adjusting budgets or timelines.

2.    Transparent Communication:

Boeing faced scrutiny for its lack of transparency and communication regarding the issues with the 737 MAX.  It kept MCAS a secret from customers and regulators until it had to be revealed as the cause of a fatal crash.  It has been secretive about its own internal investigations, presumably on the advice of its legal team, although this has paradoxically resulted in escalating legal challenges and litigation.  Furthermore, most of Boeing’s communications were handled by its PR team (rather than its CEO or Board Chair), and these communications came across as bland, formulaic and excessively constrained by lawyers’ phrasing.  School boards should prioritise personal, factual, transparent communication with all stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, staff, alumni and the general community.  This is especially so in times of crisis or when considering important changes.

3.    Regulatory Compliance:

Boeing’s main regulatory authority in the US is the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).  As funding to the FAA was reduced over the years, the FAA allowed manufacturers such as Boeing to self-regulate many aspects of their operations.  This cosy relationship ended when the 737 MAX crashes revealed the inadequacy of self-regulation.  The FAA’s response was to impose a far more intense level of scrutiny that has subsequently revealed even more problems at Boeing, delaying certification of new airliners and slowing production rates.  School boards and leaders should emphasise strict, full adherence to accountability requirements and regulations, working closely in partnership with relevant authorities to ensure compliance through harmonious, professional relationships.

4.    Ethical Leadership:

Boeing’s repeated public claims following every 737 MAX incident that “Safety remains our top priority” now seem somewhat hollow after a decade of mishaps, quality control shortcomings and accidents.  Boeing 737 MAX crises highlight the importance of ethical leadership where leaders say what they mean and mean what they say.  Similarly, school boards should insist that every level of educational and financial leadership in the school makes decisions based on ethical considerations that demonstrate a commitment to the well-being of students and the broader educational community.  Needless to say, school boards should act in precisely the same manner to enhance the school’s mission and vision.

5.    Accountability and Oversight:

Following each 737 MAX incident, Boeing tried to divert blame to external sources – pilots, maintenance officers, their own suppliers, the regulators.  Boeing’s internal oversight and accountability mechanisms were questioned. School boards should establish robust oversight mechanisms to monitor the implementation of policies, ensure compliance, and hold individuals accountable for their actions.

6.    Continuous Training and Professional Development:

Southwest Airlines, one of Boeing’s major customers and a key operator of older 737 airliners, demanded that pilot training for transitioning to the 737 MAX be minimal.  The airline insisted on maintaining a high level of commonality with earlier 737 models to minimise the need for additional training and certification.  Boeing agreed to this demand, requiring just four hours training on an iPad for pilots to transition to the 737 MAX, additionally promising to pay Southwest Airlines $1 million per plane rebate if any simulator training was needed.  A year before one of its 737 MAX airliners crashed, Lion Air tried to introduce simulator training for its pilots, and Boeing refused to allow it, claiming (in internal communications) that it would undermine a key selling point for the aircraft.  Understandably, Boeing faced subsequent criticism for lapses in the pilot training protocols and undisclosed documentation of new features.  In contrast to Boeing, school boards should invest in continuous training and professional development for teachers and staff – and themselves! – to ensure they stay updated on best practices and educational advancements.

7.    Crisis Preparedness:

Clearly, Boeing struggled with its crisis management and continues to pay the price in terms of lost sales, delayed certification, production delays and severe reputational damage.  School boards should develop comprehensive crisis management and risk reduction plans to address a full range of actual, potential and perceived issues promptly, thus minimising adverse impacts on the school, its students and staff, and its ongoing reputation.

8.    Cultural Shift Towards Safety:

Boeing’s culture has been heavily criticised, with claims that it prioritised production targets and share prices over safety.  School boards have a duty to ensure that schools are safe, secure environments for everyone present, including visitors, contractors, and volunteers as well as its own students and staff.  Fixing risks posed by maintenance oversights, deteriorating infrastructure, inadequate security, and so on, must always be a top priority on a school’s expenditure and efforts – an integral component of a prevailing culture that values safety and welfare.

9.    Collaboration and Interdepartmental Communication:

Boeing faced significant communication shortcomings between its different departments that exacerbated its safety and quality challenges.  For example, there were many reported communication breakdowns between engineers and management.  When engineers reported problems, they were often ignored because fixing the issue would slow production, miss deadlines or raise costs.  In several cases, the engineers who reported the problems were sacked from their jobs, lowering overall morale, and leading to a culture of hiding mistakes.  In contrast to Boeing’s culture of blame, school leaders and their boards should encourage open, transparent collaboration and frank, respectful communication between various departments to ensure a cohesive and coherent approach to solving problems and advancing the school’s mission and vision.

10.    Learning from Mistakes:

Boeing’s response to the 737 MAX (and other) incidents has highlighted the importance of learning from mistakes.  School boards should do everything they can to create an authentic learning culture that encourages applying the lessons acquired from both successes and failures to continuous improvement in the educational system.  Boeing seems to have been incapable of developing a true learning culture over the past decade or two; it would be a sad indictment indeed if schools – that is, educational organisations that specialise in teaching and learning – fell into the same vortex.  No school would want to suffer the long-term reputational damage Boeing has experienced, with seemingly miniscule chances of a quick (or even medium-term) recovery. 

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We help schools manage crisis situations.  We also help schools prevent crisis by focussing on establishing ongoing best practice through our workshops and by undertaking regular board reviews and senior management appraisals.

Further information on many facets of best practice in school leadership and governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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