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Boeing’s turnaround after 737 Max crisis threatened by talent exodus

Boeing Co. will put its battered engineering reputation on the line again this week when its Starliner spacecraft blasts off from Florida with a load of supplies for the International Space Station.

The mission is a do-over of a 2019 trip that almost ended in calamity, and a dress rehearsal for the Boeing capsule’s first flight with astronauts later this year. If successful, it would narrow the gap with an ascendant rival, SpaceX, and answer the latest space-faring feats by the billionaire founders of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

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A tour de force by Starliner might also help distract from a potential problem Boeing is facing back on earth: An exodus of some of the company’s most experienced engineers that threatens its rebound from a bruising run that includes the grounding of its 737 Max jets after two fatal crashes and the plunge in global air travel amid the spread of Covid-19.

“It’s hard to overestimate the significance of it,” said Andrew Aldrin, director of the Aldrin Space Institute at the Florida Institute of Technology.

More than 3,200 engineers and technical workers have left the company’s Seattle airplane manufacturing hub since the start of last year, about 18% of the union that represents them, with only a scant number added behind. In all, Boeing is aiming to cut 23,000 employees — from its executive committee to the factory floor — through layoffs, buyouts and retirement initiatives it launched last year as it racked up record financial losses.

The engineers departed an employer that had shifted away from the bet-the-company ethos that gave the world the 747 jumbo jet and the Apollo era’s Saturn rocket. Over the past decade, cost-obsessed Boeing executives wowed Wall Street by plowing more than $40 billion into share buybacks. The strategy made Boeing the best performer in the Dow Jones Industrial Average for a span, but left the manufacturer ill-prepared for leaner times and new competitive threats.

Now, with a new space age beckoning and aviation beginning to tentatively recover from the pandemic, the century-old company’s standing as the preeminent American aerospace champion is in question.

Boeing’s new chief executive officer, Dave Calhoun, has pledged to return the aviation titan to its roots as an engineering-centric company as he reboots its strategy for an era of loosened pandemic restrictions. There has been a step-up in hiring to offset the lost talent and address software shortfalls, but a spate of production defects in the crown-jewel 787 Dreamliner have overshadowed that initiative.

“We wonder if Boeing is suffering from an engineering brain drain, as potentially too many senior engineers have left the company in recent years and recent hiring trends have not filled the gap,” cautioned Ron Epstein, an analyst with Bank of America, who was a Boeing scientist early in his career.

The manufacturer shielded its government-funded space and defense units from the payroll purge, and continued to hire through the worst of last year’s downturn, including engineers. As the 737 Max was cleared to fly again and air travel rebounded in the U.S., the Chicago-based company pared its job-cut targets by at least 3,000 positions — targets that could narrow again as business conditions improve. It held a virtual career fair this month to recruit production and airplane systems engineers to its Seattle facilities.

“Engineering excellence is core to Boeing’s culture,” a Boeing spokesman said in a statement. “Over the past two years, we have methodically strengthened our engineering function, including establishing a unified organization of 50,000 talented and accomplished engineers across our commercial, defense, and space portfolio.”

Still, Boeing faces a years-long turnaround and intensified competition in its commercial jet business from arch-rival Airbus SE, which has built up a commanding sales lead. With aircraft sales snapping back faster than expected and pressure building to launch a new midrange jetliner, Boeing will soon find out: Did it cut too deeply?

The Pull of Competitors

Boeing has lost scores of workers to younger businesses, such as Amazon.com Inc. and SpaceX, that are pushing technological advances at breakneck speed. About 1,100 Boeing alumni now work for the Seattle-based e-commerce giant, an analysis of LinkedIn data show, and at least 200 former Boeing workers are at Elon Musk’s space venture. Microsoft Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. are also popular landing spots.

Those who join SpaceX and endure its grueling, 20-hour work days are often driven by idealism, said Aldrin. After all, Musk founded the company with the grandiose goal of establishing interplanetary travel that one day might save the human race.

With Amazon, the lure is often money. Boeing professionals in the Seattle area can potentially get a significant pay bump without uprooting their families by joining the online retailer, say two people familiar with the matter. No wonder: Amazon, like SpaceX, is a new-economy wunderkind.

Amazon has been hiring Boeing workers with deep operations expertise for the side of its business where humans and robots toil together in giant warehouses. Walt Odisho, for example, had spearheaded efforts to make Boeing’s 737 factory more efficient. He retired from Boeing in March and joined Amazon weeks later as a vice president, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Another Boeing veteran, David Carbon, led that company’s South Carolina operations and introduced the largest 787 Dreamliner model to the world. These days, he’s overseeing the Amazon unit that’s creating a fleet of drones to whisk orders to shoppers.

Carbon cheered when a former colleague, Bob Whittington, signed on as Prime Air’s vice president of technology and engineering in November. Whittington, who had been the chief engineer for the 787 program, was among the first wave of workers to depart Boeing last year as the pandemic decimated sales. He didn’t stay retired for long, joining Amazon months later, LinkedIn shows. “Bob is a legend in the aviation world,” Carbon gushed online of the 33-year Boeing veteran.

In Whittington, Amazon had lured someone who practically had aviation in his veins. His father, also named Bob Whittington, was one of the Boeing engineers who roughed out the design for the B-52 bomber over a weekend in 1948.

“There are a lot of smart people who work here who could choose to make money doing something else. But they love airplanes,” the younger Whittington said in a 2013 profile by a company magazine. “When an airplane flies over, they all look up.”

No fewer than 32 Boeing engineers have landed at Amazon’s Prime Air cargo drone service, most of them hired within the past two years. In fact, Amazon overtook Boeing as Washington’s largest employer last year as its sales surged, state data show.

“There are a tremendous number of opportunities for aerospace, science, robotics, and engineering experts at Prime Air that involve cutting-edge innovations,” a spokesperson for the online retailer said in a statement. Amazon declined to make former Boeing executives available for an interview.

The competition for talent is heating up as the industry adjusts to a pandemic-altered world. Aerospace is heading into “a major hiring phase,’’ said Paul Smith, senior vice president of business development at PEAK Technical Staffing, a headhunting firm that specializes in engineering. “We’re spending more time recruiting for engineering now than we have done previously in those marketplaces because they’re really starting to want to steal people.”

Boeing has notched some wins in the talent wars. In November, it created a new vice president role for Jinnah Hosein, a veteran of SpaceX, Tesla Inc., Google, and most recently Aurora, a self-driving vehicle company.

Software design and coding errors have repeatedly led to performance shortfalls, like the faulty system that commanded the 737 Max to dive, KC-46 tanker’s fueling glitches and delays to the 777X jet’s debut. They also caused the Starliner capsule to miss a rendezvous with the International Space Station on its first flight in 2019. In his new role, Hosein charts strategy and leads a new centralized engineering unit that helps Boeing’s three main divisions develop software embedded in the manufacturer’s products.

The turmoil has also been something of a boon for those angling to join Boeing’s top engineering ranks. The company has given 264 employees the sought-after designation of technical fellow this year, an honor that marks them as a top-caliber expert and often means a bump in pay. Some years only a dozen or so people make the grade. The planemaker lost 275 of those specialists in last year’s exodus.

“I had no qualms when I left Boeing this past December after 35-plus years with the company,’’ said Todd Zarfos, a retired engineering vice president. “I considered our engineering talent pipeline very robust and something in which I and fellow leaders invested to ensure continuity with the next generation of leaders.’‘

Not everyone shares his optimism. The turnover inevitably has meant the loss of some of the knowledge gained through decades of designing and building highly complicated jetliners.

“I assume they think they have plans in place to ensure that knowledge isn’t lost,” said Ray Goforth, executive director of the union representing Boeing’s engineers. “I don’t have the same confidence.”

Boeing still has a pipeline into the nation’s top engineering schools, and the company’s name on a resume can open doors. Even with its recent travails, the planemaker is among the 10 largest employers of 2021 Washington State University graduates. The number-one destination for this year’s class: Amazon.

Done With Moon Shots

Boeing’s talent predicament has been years in the making. The Boeing engineering union’s membership peaked at 22,985 early last decade as the planemaker tackled 787 production snarls, while developing new models including the 737 Max. It has since tumbled by 38% as management shifted work to Florida and California. Back in 2014, while Musk’s SpaceX was setting its sights on Mars, Boeing focused on cash after then-CEO Jim McNerney declared the company was done pursuing the once-in-a-generation “moon shots” that had long been its hallmark.

The planemaker ramped up production of its most-profitable jets at factories strained almost to the breaking point, resulting in record sales. The strategy worked until two 737 Max jets fell out of the sky within a five-month span. The fatal crashes, linked to flawed flight-control software, created a massive hole in Boeing’s revenue and a public-relations nightmare. The following year, the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out demand for the company’s other cash-cow jet, the 787 Dreamliner.

All told, those two crises sapped $30 billion in cash and precipitated the largest internal upheaval since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks roiled its jetliner business. The exodus in Seattle has included around 6,000 mechanics, according to their union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

While analysts warn about the impact of engineering departures, it is too early to know how they might affect Boeing’s long-term prospects, including its showdown with European rival Airbus. That company didn’t cut workers as deeply and is now working to speed output in its factories to exceed pre-pandemic levels. The France-based manufacturer holds about 50% more single-aisle jet orders compared to Boeing’s backlog, giving it a rare opportunity to take command of the jetliner duopoly.

While Boeing ramped up its share buybacks last decade, Airbus was outspending the U.S. manufacturer on research as a percentage of sales every year but one. Airbus shares are up about 117% over the last five years, compared to a 66% gain for Boeing.

Tough Decisions

Boeing has cut deeply into its workforce over the years to survive industry shocks. It has often recalled workers and rehired retirees as consultants when the subsequent recovery left it short-handed.

“That’s just the tendency, to lay off too many, too soon,” said Tom McCarty, a retired engineer and former president of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, an engineers union.

Aerospace analyst Seth Seifman says the company is still in the “early-to-mid stages” of a transition under CEO Calhoun, who took the top job in January 2020 after predecessor Dennis Muilenburg was pushed out over the 737 Max debacle. Brian West, a long-time Calhoun lieutenant, is replacing the recently-retired Greg Smith as chief financial officer and key architect of Boeing’s makeover.

Calhoun, a former GE executive who more recently ran Blackstone’s private-equity portfolio, has vowed to get the basics right — core engineering, safety and manufacturing quality. He has made some tough decisions, including closing a Seattle-area manufacturing line for the 787 Dreamliner and shifting work to a non-unionized plant in South Carolina.

As the crisis worsened last year, Calhoun also jettisoned Boeing’s futuristic forays. First to go was a midrange jet known as the NMA, followed by Boeing’s $4.2 billion takeover of Embraer SA. Boeing later shut down units that had dabbled in venture capital. It opted against propping up now-defunct supersonic jet-maker Aerion Corp., after spending around $300 million for an equity stake, according to a person familiar with the matter.

But it wasn’t just tangential projects that fell to cost cuts. Boeing slashed its overall research and development spending 23% last year from a year earlier. For a company so heavily dependent on innovation, that was the equivalent of a farmer dining on the seed corn needed to plant next year’s crop, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group.

Boeing says it has poured more than $60 billion into research and development, capital expenditures and strategic investments such as digital engineering tools that helped move the T-7A military training jet from a design on a computer screen to first flight in 36 months. “These investments in our people and our products empower our teams to drive innovation, quality and performance as they work on challenging programs that change the world,” the company said.

Lure of Complicated Machines

Starliner is set to dock at the space station for several days before returning to Earth with a landing in the western U.S. A drama-free voyage could help restore some of the swagger to a Boeing division that pioneered human spaceflight. For now, SpaceX continues to captivate the next generation of rocket scientists. Aldrin, who is the son of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, estimates that over half of the engineering students he teaches near Florida’s Space Coast have their sights set on Musk’s venture.

The talent Boeing has lost may come into sharper focus if the planemaker moves ahead with its first all-new jetliner since the 787 Dreamliner debuted nearly two decades ago. The prospect of creating one of the most complicated machines on the planet was a reliable lure to engineers in the past.

Then again, Boeing was sketching out concepts for this type of jetliner back in 2014, when McNerney backed away from moon shots. That was weeks after SpaceX first flew a rocket booster back from the edge of space to a soft, watery landing, redefining American industrial innovation and establishing itself as a glittery star in a constellation where the leading legacy player was starting to fade.

Bloomberg
Bloomberg

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© Bloomberg
The author’s opinion are not necessarily the opinions of the American Journal of Transportation (AJOT).

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