I was struck by an article in today’s NY Times about a new scandal around the Boeing 737 MAX. Apparently there was another Boeing 737 crash in 2009 where similar issues (for an earlier 737 version) were hushed up under US pressure.
The scandal was shocking enough, but what provoked this piece was the discussion of cultural issues at Boeing—specifically the attitude toward the FAA. There were many quotes from emails talking about regulators as barriers to be overcome by any means necessary. If you believe the project manager emails, there was no recognition of any legitimate concern at all.
That’s horrifying. It’s a serious problem with Boeing’s culture. However, it’s important to recognize that the situation is not unique. The relationship of a regulator with the regulated company is always adversarial and difficult. The issue goes beyond Boeing.
I worked for some years for telephone companies, at Bell Labs and later at GTE. We were a regulated utility. The role of the regulator was less critical—what was at stake was service quality and cost—but they did have a significant influence on what happened. We didn’t regard them as hostile exactly, but overall the culture was that we provided good service more despite them than because of them. From the inside that’s what happens. Even at a working level, you see your side of the picture. And phone companies are anything but angels.
That’s precisely why regulation is important. You can’t let the regulated companies tell you in all sincerity that the regulators are idiots and the process is nuts. They always will.
At the EPA and elsewhere we’ve now decided that the only people worth listening to are the regulated. We’re all passengers on a 737 MAX.