PARIS --- In a rare case of aeronautical symmetry, two American aircraft programs and two European aircraft programs have suffered high-profile, highly-publicized failures in recent years. Yet, while the European programs have recovered and are arguably now stronger for having survived, both American programs increasingly resemble a slow-motion train wreck, with no alternate ending in sight.
The Airbus A380 program went haywire in the middle of the last decade, as management was distracted by the French wars of succession at EADS and Airbus. This lack of oversight and Airbus’ devolved, hands-off management style resulted in the first A380s being delivered to Toulouse for final assembly with faulty wiring, and had to be completely re-wired at considerable cost.
This first A380 crisis – leadership and wiring - was resolved through the appointment of Louis Gallois as CEO of EADS. This calmed the waters and allowed pragmatism and common sense to prevail over personal ambition. It also prepared Airbus to weather the second A380 crisis, when cracks were found in its wings shortly after it entered revenue service, and when its Rolls-Royce engines began blowing up in mid-air.
Admitting a problem exists is the first step to solving it, and committing all necessary resources to tackling it head-on is the best – indeed, the only - way of maintaining customer and stakeholder confidence.
This approach also explains why the A380 wing cracks – which so far have cost Airbus over $250 million to fix – and the exploding Trent engines have receded in public awareness, despite being the two most worrying things that can happen to an aircraft. And today the A380 is known more for its comfort and for its silence than for its past troubles.
Pragmatism saved the A400M
The same pragmatic approach also helped Airbus survive the more serious problems that developed in its A400M military airlifter program. A gigantic dose of arrogance had led previous management to recklessly offer a contract which applied commercial terms to the development of a military aircraft, and which bundled development, pre-production and production into a single, fixed-price contract. Airbus wanted to show the world that it could develop a military aircraft better than companies that had been doing it for decades.
This proved disastrous when major technical problems emerged, mostly but not exclusively with the European-designed turboprops on which governments had insisted.
Again, a change in management forced Airbus to take stock, realized it was running into a brick wall, and slowed the program while it renegotiated the contract – at considerable cost to its government customers – and fixed the technical problems. This added several billion euros to costs, required the agreement of all partner governments, and postponed deliveries by several years.
But biting the bullet in this way ultimately proved the right decision, as with the delivery of the first production aircraft now imminent, past problems are largely forgotten in the excitement of seeing Europe finally field a large transport aircraft of its own which will not only largely solve its airlift shortfall, but also promises to conquer the C-130 and C-17 replacement markets because the United States have no plans – and no money - to develop a new airlifter of their own.
Contrast the way these two European programs surmounted their potentially catastrophic crises with what is happening to two major American programs, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
In both these programs, a refusal to admit and to confront serious problems – gigantic doses of management arrogance, however one looks at it – explains why these two programs are likely to get even worse before they get better.
While Boeing’s Dreamliner – in retrospect, its very name seems to have been tempting fate – has been in the headlines every day since the turn of the year, its problems have long been known but have been constantly downplayed by Boeing.
Don’t let reality spoil a great program
The Dreamliner, remember, is the aircraft that was secretly put together with temporary rivets so it could be rolled out on time – and said rivets had to be later removed and replaced at huge cost. This is also the aircraft which nearly lost a prototype to an electrical fire in mid-air during flight tests; which has suffered other development snags which are just starting to be documented; and whose development was outsourced to Asia and Europe for no good reason other than to reduce Boeing’s investment and thus ultimately boost its profits.
In fact, already in November 2010 the chief executive of Qatar Airways criticized Boeing over delays to the 787, saying that it has "clearly failed". Akbar Al Baker said he had been "taken aback" by the problems that have plagued the delivery of the aircraft.
This is also the program which outsourced the design and production of its wings – the crucial bit that magically transforms a long metal tube from a train into an aircraft – to Japan, possibly the most inane decision in the history of commercial aviation.
When the 787 began its well-publicized run of problems, Boeing’s initial reaction was to shrug off each incident as a routine “teething problem” and to insist the aircraft was sound and safe.
After the FAA grounded the aircraft on Jan. 11, Boeing Chairman, President and CEO Jim McNerney issued a statement saying “We also stand 100 percent behind the integrity of the 787 and the rigorous process that led to its successful certification and entry into service.” Once again, he refused to confront reality.
It is also worth noting that, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, “Boeing fought unsuccessfully for days to head off or deflect the FAA announcement, arguing it was unwarranted and threatened to undermine investor, customer and passenger confidence in the plane.” Indeed.
By Jan. 16, when it had to issue another statement, Boeing had dropped the reference to the “rigorous” certification process, and was stressing that “The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority.”
Whistling past the graveyard
Yet, by continuing to insist that the 787 is safe even as the various investigations are just beginning, Boeing continues to refuse to concede the obvious: the aircraft has very serious problems design and manufacturing problems. Of course, the company’s very existence is at stake, but whistling past the graveyard won’t solve the problem.
Which brings us to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the aircraft that was supposed to cost much less to buy and to operate than its predecessors; whose computer-based design was so predictive that flight testing would hardly be necessary, so production was started “concurrently” with flight-testing; and whose stealth and “fifth-generation” capabilities would allow it to rule the skies forever and a day.
Ten years on, Lockheed’s much-vaunted “concurrency” is recognized as “acquisition malpractice” even by the Pentagon, development costs have more than doubled, aircraft unit costs have tripled, and so many unforeseen technical problems have been discovered that flight testing has been running in place for over a year.
Over six years after its first flight, the aircraft has so many technical and flight test failures and faults that their description covers a full 17 pages of the recent report by the Pentagon’s director of Operational Test & Evaluation.
A continuing litany of failure
As this decade-long litany of failure unfolded, Lockheed has always maintained that there are no insurmountable technical problems, that most of these issues are due to the Pentagon’s constantly changing specifications, and that cost inflation is mainly due to the Pentagon’s unilateral decision to reduce production numbers.
In fact, in a press release issued on the same day that the OT&E report was leaked, Lockheed recounted how the F-35 “achieved significant advances in flight test.” Like Alice, the company is obviously living in a Wonderland of its own.
In much the same way as European governments supported the A400M and accepted price gouging because they had no alternative, the Pentagon continues to fund the F-35 despite its many and well-documented failings. This is seen by Lockheed as a statement of support.
Yet, until Lockheed admits and confronts its failings, it will not be able to change the corporate culture of denial which is a pre-requisite for ultimately fixing the program – if it can still be fixed, which is an open question.
So, in the final analysis, why did Europe succeed in fixing the A380 and A400M, while Boeing and Lockheed are getting mired down in their respective nightmare programs?
Engineers versus bean-counters
One – but certainly not the only – explanation is that Airbus is run by engineers, who reason along technical lines, while Boeing and Lockheed managers are ruled by profits goals and margins.
This was aptly summed up at the 2009 Paris Air Show by Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker – who is similarly outspoken about Airbus when it suits him – when he famously said that Boeing was run by “bean-counters and lawyers.”
Lockheed too, it can be argued, as its performance on the F-35 clearly shows it has more savvy in P.R. than in engineering.
Unless these two companies revert to their engineer-dominated past, and change their corporate cultures, they are unlikely to solve the very real engineering problems that threaten not only their profitability, but ultimately their long-term existence as well.