Coming to grips with a changed old friend: McBoeing

For a certain generation of Northwest airplane geeks, Boeing's recent troubles hit especially hard. The easiest thing may be to just call the company what it has become: McDonnell Douglas.
Crosscut archive image.

Boeing 747 rollout

For a certain generation of Northwest airplane geeks, Boeing's recent troubles hit especially hard. The easiest thing may be to just call the company what it has become: McDonnell Douglas.

In my tweens, entire weekends were spent building plastic jetliner models to be hung "in flight" from my bedroom ceiling. To kids like me, Boeing used to be the coolest thing around. It built amazing planes, each a pioneering gamble, every one better than before. They sometimes took awhile to become commercial successes but they always flew and always worked well.

The apotheosis of my Boeing adulation was a pilgrimage to the Boeing Surplus Store in Kent, where it was possible — this was a very good day — to talk Mom into hauling home an entire bank of seats salvaged from a 707 "Intercontinental" for our basement TV room, complete with functional ashtrays, seat belts and tray tables.

Boeing was like a local version of NASA during the heyday of Apollo — all whirring magnetic tape reels, punch cards and modest-but-confident, rock-solid technical experts. At its "core competency" of building things that fly in the sky, Boeing simply did not make mistakes. (Boats that fly? Not so much.) In those days Boeing's brilliance was all the cooler because it was powered by guys like our friends' dads — engineers we knew from the neighborhood who sported slide rules and pocket protectors in full force.

All of which makes Boeing's recent spectacle of management and program failures especially painful to watch. Alas, it is time to say out loud what we local airplane dorks have been thinking for years. Boeing has finally, irrefutably become the thing that we loathed and found most pitiable in our youth: McDonnell Douglas.

With the recent announcement of a second delay and billion-dollar write-down in the 747-8 program, not to mention the long running cruel hoax that has become the 787 Dreamliner launch schedule, it's hard not to wince at what seems to be a potent mix of managerial and engineering incompetence at the top.

The old Boeing embodied stout Northwest qualities. The company was strong, capable, and above all else relied on technical achievement as the ultimate arena of success or failure. The stock price came and went, profits materialized in good times, and once in a while it was necessary to "bet the company" on research and development to continue aviation's advancement.

Imagine the creation of the 747 in the late 1960s. Invented from a blank sheet of paper — on paper! — and forged into flyable reality in about 29 months, including the task of building the world's largest building in Everett as a factory. Today, the delays in the 787 Dreamliner project threaten to dwarf the entire project development time of the 747.

What happened? The merger with McDonnell Douglas is what happened. Industry analysts like Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group have been chronicling the changed ways of the post-merger Boeing company as far back as 2003. And judging from his reports from the front lines, none of this should now be a surprise.

According to Aboulafia, "McDonnell Douglas effectively used Boeing'ꀙs money to buy Boeing. This resulted in a struggle between a faction that wanted to invest in Boeing'ꀙs future (basically the legacy Boeing crowd) and a faction that wanted to invest in Boeing'ꀙs shareholders (basically the McDonnell Douglas leadership). ... The future investment faction won, but at a price: The McDonnell Douglas zombie bit them before it died, ... the new Boeing also disempowered the company'ꀙs engineers, turning its back on a decades-old management culture that didn'ꀙt always produce profits but did always produce great planes. Instead, it embraced McDonnell Douglas'ꀙs culture of leadership by money people. This disconnect between engineers and finance executives would explain why bad news wasn'ꀙt communicated upstairs."

Boeing's old Northwest home gave it a certain insularity from the fevers of the East — certainly the fevers of Wall Street — that enabled Boeing to put the planes and engineers first for so many years. Once McDonnell Douglas swept the executive suites and packed up for Chicago, the corporate-culture handwriting was on the wall.

What's the prescription for fixing any of this? Short of spinning off Boeing Commercial Airplanes and moving it back to Seattle, bringing back the old culture ("paging Alan Mulally") and some of its leadership (all of this being extremely unlikely), the most realistic thing for all of us fans of the Old Boeing to do is use a new filter when evaluating anything Boeing does or says it will do: "What would McDonnell Douglas do?" Will McBoeing try to move as much production as possible to union-free South Carolina? Of course it will. Will McBoeing attempt to extract as many concessions as possible from local and state governments under the ruse of keeping jobs here in the Northwest? Of course it will. Will those concession do anything to change the outcome? Of course not.

For that matter, will the 787 keep its wings on any better than DC-10s kept on their cargo doors or engines? At this point, who really knows. Perhaps it will simply be as successful as the MD-11 was.

Boeing's current management culture is something quite foreign to old-school Boeing folks. Now, sadly, for the first time previously unheard words float in the air around the company, its managers, and its products: design flaw.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.