Boeing Works To Rebuild Safety Culture

Boeing aircraft
Boeing’s compliance issues have affected most of its commercial programs and date back years.
Credit: Guy Norris/AW&ST

A company that has been designing airplanes for more than a century, helped put people on the Moon and win wars with its airpower prowess should not need to overhaul its safety culture. But following years of missteps on major programs and two industry-changing commercial aviation accidents, Boeing had little choice: Its approach to safety, both internally and with customers, needed rebuilding.

  • Company is changing core safety programs
  • Push integrates internal, external data
  • Buy-in from workforce is key

Nearly three years into what will be a long and at times difficult process, Boeing says it is confident the company—led by its executives but driven by its 140,000-strong workforce—is on the right track. Focused efforts are underway to strengthen its engineering discipline, enhance oversight, improve safety management, and foster needed transparency and openness within its workforce.

“We know each of these things [has] the opportunity to move the needle,” says Mike Delaney, chief aerospace safety officer, speaking in reference to the new safety initiatives. “An accident or an incident is almost always a chain of events. There’s a series of places where if you interdicted or broke the chain, you avoid the accident. We’re trying to invest in [these initiatives] and partner with the industry to leverage [Boeing’s] resources . . . to break a link in the chain.”

Commenting on the eve of the releasing the chief aerospace safety officer’s first annual report—a task Boeing must do as part of a shareholder lawsuit settlement linked to the 2018 and 2019 crashes of Boeing 737 MAX 8s—Delaney says establishing a “positive safety culture” is a key priority. “There are a number of attributes to positive safety culture, but probably the most important and foundational is having a just culture where people feel like they can speak up and talk about various issues or hazards and identify those,” he adds.

The initiative revolves around promoting an environment where employees “feel like they’re going to be treated fairly,” Delaney says. “And [when] people start to speak up, they know they’ll be listened to and the company will take that and act upon it,” he adds.

Fostering openness is a major plank of Boeing’s safety management system (SMS), a broad-based best practices framework for identifying and managing risks that is a key element of the company’s wide-reaching Global Aerospace Safety Initiatives (GASI) program. Investigations linked to the 737 accidents spotlighted problems between Boeing’s rank-and-file members and management, as well as with basic processes designed to identify risk before it becomes an in-service threat (AW&ST Nov. 23-Dec. 6, 2020, p. 16).

In some cases, issues that were raised, such as questions about a design, were not always adequately vetted. In others, the company simply did not do its job. Signs of the problems predate the 737 MAX. A 2014 FAA report on issues that led to the 787’s grounding (AW&ST April 29, 2013, p. 24) detailed mistakes within system safety assessments on that program, and the SMS itself is a product of a wide-ranging 2015 FAA settlement agreement that addressed 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 program compliance issues dating back to 2011.

More recent evidence points to broader problems lingering well after the second 737 MAX accident in March 2019. An August 2021 letter from the FAA raised concerns about a “company culture” that does not encourage open communication with the agency. Among the FAA’s recommendations was to use the SMS process to evaluate risks and develop corrective actions.

While acknowledging the journey will be long, progress is already evident, the company says. Among the signs, more problems are being reported, says Al Madar, vice president of operational safety and strategy and deputy chief aerospace safety officer.

“If you look at 2021 and 2022 for the first quarter over first quarter, there’s been a 32% increase in safety and quality reports,” Madar says. “March and April of 2022 are the highest months yet.”

While an upward trend in bad news reports may sound unsettling, it is a positive sign for an organization trying to shift its culture and encourage transparency. Internal programs that bring more issues to the forefront voluntarily—a pillar of any successful SMS—suggest progress.

“That data tells me that what we’re doing is working,” says Madar, a former American Airlines executive who led early implementation of Boeing’s SMS. “The most important thing we want [employees] to do in the SMS is report things that they see out there that are potential hazards—a hazard being anything that could potentially affect the safety, quality or compliance of our products.”

The SMS safety framework, which will be adopted enterprise-wide, is based on an established International Civil Aviation Organization industry model. Manufacturers governed by FAA’s Part 25 regulations will eventually be required to have their own systems under a rulemaking that is in progress.

An SMS is a set of policies and procedures that promotes safety and, when working correctly, reduces risk. Key to its success are buy-in throughout an organization and productive use of data. Internal data such as company reporting trends is a must. For an organization such as Boeing external data is crucial as well, due to the effect the company’s decisions have on its customers.

The company is feeding some fleet data from airlines back into the design organization or a quality system “to make it stronger,” says Tom Galantowicz, vice president and general manager of product and services safety and deputy chief aerospace safety officer. “We’re learning things during the build of the airplane,” he adds. “And that can feed into our design aspects, [which] can also feed back into our maintenance operations. It’s really taking what we’ve always tried to do in terms of having best practices across our programs and putting in place a much more formal system to make sure that’s successful.”

Enhanced sharing of data with the FAA is another key element.

“On a daily basis, things that we see from the fleet are fed over to the FAA at the same time that they’re fed into the Boeing system,” Galantowicz says. “Our safety engineering, design engineering and quality systems are all a part of the mechanism, together with the FAA feedback to help ensure that we’re reacting to the appropriate signals that are coming from that system.”

While data has always been shared with the regulator, the flow is increasing, he adds.

“The key piece to making this successful is the transparency with the FAA,” Galantowicz says. “We’re sharing more data and in much greater detail than we have in the past. And we’re sharing it at a frequency that we just didn’t have the capability [for] in the past.”

Work on other elements of the SMS initiative also is accelerating, Boeing says. These include a program to send company pilots to customer sites to provide face-to-face support and guidance on safe operations, similar to the current field-service representative model that has long been in place.

“Having somebody there that is participating in flight operations meetings [and] safety reviews—just like we have on the maintenance and engineering side—is really going to give us that balance as we go forward,” says GASI Vice President Lacey Pittman.

New training aids are also rolling out, such as a virtual procedures trainer for pilots that can be customized to match a user’s experience and capabilities. Combined with the new flight operations support, the efforts underscore Boeing’s recognition that its efforts carry significant weight in ensuring customers are confident operating the company’s products. The approach stands in stark contrast to the run-up to the 737 MAX’s entry into service, when Boeing pushed back against customer requests for extra simulator training (AW&ST Jan. 27-Feb. 9, 2020, p. 20).

The data pipeline into Boeing’s SMS will continue to expand as well. Advanced data analytics “will comprehensively support our safety management system,” says Vishwa Uddanwadiker, vice president for aerospace safety analytics and leader of the company’s efforts to develop Boeing Safety Intelligence (BSI). Designed to analyze operational data using system engineering and accident causation models, BSI is expected to provide insights into safety trends and potentially predict new hazards.

“We’ve looked at runway overruns and ETOPS events such as inflight shutdowns, those sorts of things,” he adds.

The goal is to develop BSI into a predictive tool—one step at a time.

“The first C is comparison,” Uddanwadiker says. “The next C is correlation, which starts seeing correlated events and uncorrelated events. The third C, which is the holy grail, is causation. That’s when you know what is causing what, and that is where we want to go.”

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.


Reading this article just after the one regarding Boeing position on 737-10 EICAS being unnecessary, shows that what they say about safety culture change is irrelevant. They have learn nothing from MAX deadly accidents.
Not a silver bullet, but perhaps Boeing should put the engineers in charge again?
While these developments are positive and welcome, it is barely believable that a company that designs, builds and sells products that have had a direct life or death impact on millions of customers and users for decades would have to "Rebuild safety culture" 100+ years after of being in business. Boeing promoted people who thought their No. 1 job was to keep shareholders and senior executives happy by propping up the share price with financial engineering tricks. Shame or low share price are not enough. Is there no jail time for anyone in that somber chain of command?
It is more of a build back better for Boeing; their future actions will speak much louder than words. In the wise old words of Yoda, "Try not but do, or do not." The safety oops is an existential threat, a must to get it right the first time.