Boeing 737 Max official, crash questions linger

Boeing said on Wednesday it was shaking up leadership at its business jet division after a terrifying incident last month in which a piece of a 737 Max 9 jet fell from the plane.

Ed Clark, head of Boeing's 737 Max program, which includes the Max 9, is leaving effective immediately, Stan Diehl, chief executive of the business aviation division, said in a memo to employees. Boeing, which has announced other leadership changes, is under pressure from regulators, airlines and members of Congress to demonstrate its commitment to making safer planes.

Boeing recently said it was overhauling its quality control process, including increased inspections at the factory in Renton, Wash., where Mr. Clark oversaw production of the Max. The leadership changes are the company's most significant attempt to show that it is taking responsibility for the Jan. 5 incident that left an Alaska Airlines plane with a hole in its fuselage.

Mr Clarke took over the Max program in 2021 as the company accelerated production of the plane, which was banned from flying around the world for 20 months after two fatal crashes killed 346 people. Those accidents cost Boeing billions of dollars, damaged its image and drew more scrutiny of the company from regulators around the world.

Katie Ringold, previously in charge of 737 deliveries, will take over the MAX program, and another executive, Elizabeth Lund, will take on a new role overseeing the quality of all Boeing commercial aircraft, Mr. Deal said Wednesday. Mike Fleming, Miss., who oversaw Max's return to service after the accident. Lund will succeed him as head of the unit's aviation programs. Also as Vice President of Development Projects Mr. Don Ruhman will take over the role of Fleming.

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Mr. Deal said in a note. “Our customers demand, deserve, nothing less.”

Richard Abulafia, managing director of aerospace consulting firm Aerodynamic Advisory, praised Boeing for promoting from within rather than bringing in outsiders to shake up leadership. But he cautioned that there are limits to such changes.

“I recommend that they don't treat their workforce and supply chain companies as mere commodities — in other words, to make sure they're adequately resourced,” he said. “Organizational changes can only go so far toward solving the underlying problem.”

The Alaska Airlines incident occurred shortly after takeoff from Portland International Airport. At about 16,000 feet, a panel on the Max 9 jet known as a door plug exploded, terrifying passengers and forcing the pilots to return to Portland for an emergency landing. A plug is a barrier used to cover a gap in the fuselage where an additional exit door can be optionally installed. Had the plane reached cruising altitude, the crash could have been more catastrophic.

Almost immediately, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded Max 9 jets in the United States. It allowed the jets to fly after inspections were conducted, but said it would limit Boeing's plans to increase production of the Max until the agency was satisfied that Boeing could show it had fixed its quality problems.

This month the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the incident, which said two pairs of bolts responsible for attaching the plug were removed at Boeing's Renton factory and were never replaced. It is unclear how such a mistake occurred, especially on a manufacturing floor, where every aspect of the process must be documented and scrutinized.

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Five years after the Max crash, the incident and its fall plunged Boeing into a safety crisis, caused in part by software added to the jets to automatically lower the plane's nose in certain situations.

Although the door plug incident did not cause serious injuries, it raised new questions about the quality of Boeing planes. In a rare display of frustration, airline chief executives publicly criticized Boeing during television appearances and earnings calls.

After the MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019, Boeing halted and then slowly restarted production of MAX planes, which were back in service in the late 2020s. The following year, senior engineer and mechanic Mr. Clarke was appointed as Max's boss. Project, the fifth person to hold that title in three years.

The coronavirus pandemic briefly sharply reduced demand for air travel and passenger planes, prompting Boeing to scramble to cut costs and lay off workers. Travel has rebounded strongly as Boeing and its European rival Airbus struggle to keep up with demand for planes.

Boeing's Max line has also been plagued by supply chain challenges and quality control problems at its suppliers. Two weeks ago, Boeing said a supplier — later identified as Spirit Aerosystems, which makes the 737 Max bodies — had discovered improperly drilled holes in the bodies of the Max planes. The company said the error was not an immediate safety risk, but it would delay the delivery of about 50 planes for repairs.

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