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Summary – In previous articles we discussed automated flight systems in general. In this series of three articles we examine in detail a nominal systemic ‘tweek’ in the flight automation by Boeing of their dominant 737-series regional airliner which developed into a major scandal. Boeing is as synonymous with commercial aviation as Bell is to helicopters. They invented the quality systems on which ISO-9000 is based. So, how is it that they appear to have lost the plot in this regard? It is a long story. In the first part we gave a brief history of the first 100 years of the Boeing Flight Company, its designs and how it achieved total dominance in the commercial Airliner market. In this part we examine how, by failing to compete with Airbus technical innovation, Boeing lost their market hegemony.

Part-II:  The King has no Clothes – Tail wags Dog

In Part-1 of this history we saw how over a couple of generations, aviation in general, and the Boeing Company as a leading protagonist, evolved from the excitement of technical advancement into an investor driven industry. (In passing it is interesting to observe the parallel in today’s nascent Space industry).  So it was that, post-merger with McDonald-Douglas, the bean counters of MD assumed control over the joint venture with Wall Street accolades being prioritized over technical innovation. In fairness, from a purely financial perspective, with the merged Boeing Company having total market dominance in latter half of the Century, there seemed no good reason for the company to make the additional investment to match the technical innovation focused in a new European start-up, Airbus Industries. Having successfully castrated the Anglo-French Concorde, a technical last-gasp, this subsequent flabby political response with a gargantuan bureaucracy, formed in an attempt to halt the European brain drain of fading aviation expertise into the dynamic and now dominant US market, was seen as no threat. However this Newco, with no technical ‘baggage’ and deep governmental investor pockets, allowed the managing technicians to deploy state-of-the-art technologies in their new Airliner designs. For a score of years, as the new company felt it’s way and its first design, the A300 wide-body jumped the hurdles of certification, this had no impact on commercial aviation and so remained no threat to Boeing as the dominant airline market controller.

But, at the turn of the century, when the state-of-the-art and highly efficient A320 family entered service and soon dominated, the now rapidly growing narrow-body market, this swiftly changed. Suddenly faced with these cost-effective regional designs and the A330 to 380 impacting the long haul market, Boeing found itself competing against them with 1960/1970s designs – the B737-series and B767-series respectively. Neither was a match for the state-of-the-art Airbus competition as the table below of wide-body performance demonstrates.

In parallel, within the Boeing corporation, the gulf between engineering and management was similarly growing, exacerbated by the latter moving out of Seattle into new offices in Chicago in 2001. Whereas before in the Boeing family, management and marketing spent as much time chatting on the factory floor as in the office, after the move, the process was rare and more formalized.  Over the years, production targets were consistently increased as were expected sales margins by decreasing production costs. This latter was, in large part, focused on manpower reductions, certification limitation strategies, reduced quality control (QC) and minimizing pilot conversions.  One measure of this parsimonious attitude was clearly evidenced in the QC process whereby the number of inspectors on the factory floor, according to a documentary by Rory Kennedy (Downfall – the case against  Boeing – 2021), was reduced from a score to just one per shift.  

A/c Type

LOA (ft)

Max. Range (km)

Max. Pax     (1 Class)

Total Sales

Boeing 767-400ER





Airbus A330-series





Clearly knocking out more aircraft each week (up to a dozen) with less of everything, instilled an atmosphere of stress in the culture and practices on the factory floor and this is now evidenced in virtually every major Boeing program. In addition to the 737-Max saga, poor program management is evidenced in the 777-X being years behind schedule, 787 production having been on temporary hold due to QC standards and certification issues, the USAF new generation (B767-based) KC-46 aerial Tanker’s experiencing a very messy and delayed acceptance into service and, in space, the Starliner spaceship’s hugely delayed first launch. The common cause would appear to be corporate penny-pinching, and this is a probable root cause of the most recent B737-Max outrage as Part-III will show.

By any standard, the B-737 series is a very successful mid-market aircraft with more than 10,000 units thus far built over its 50-year life-span. During this time-frame, by incremental hull stretches and engine growth, the 737-series range and payload have been cost-effectively more than doubled. In the widebody sector, the B747 Jumbo Boeing dominated the trans-oceanic routes. Overland, the only serious competition to its B767 wide-bodies were other US iterations such as the MD DC-10 and Lockheed Tristar. As stated, the Airbus was a European political response to this US market hegemony which it was only able to chip at in incremental steps, initially in Europe and later in Asia until finally winning over a US major, American Airlines, now with the world’s largest A320 fleet of more than 450 units.

So it was that, atypically, over a score of years this political feature of market interference proved prescient as, with easy access to cheap government loans (all of which have since been fully repaid with interest), the bold Airbus designs and technical innovations successfully challenged Boeing dominance and particularly in the narrow-body market. The core of this challenge lay in the operating cost-efficiency of Airbus designs which was realised, in the main, through just two main elements. Foremost was the wing design and later the engines. The rest of the aircraft that the wings lift and engines power, has little impact on the cost-efficiency of its performance, until most recently, the hull weight reduction through the recent use of composites thus increasing payload. But since Boeing and Airbus use the same engines to power their designs, the secret of Airbus’s success lay in its aircrafts’ profiled wings.  

An aerofoil (wing) at a positive angle of attack (a) to an airflow, creates a pressure differential between the upper and lower surfaces and hence, a lift force (L). The greater the airflow (ie. aircraft speed) the greater the lift. When equal to an object weight (W), it flies. With the Lift force being at 90° to the aerofoil axis, the positive a generates a reverse force, Induced Drag (ID – in orange in the diagram). Inevitably, the larger the a, the higher the ID. Airbus benefited from billions of design dollars of British wing profiling (based on those of gliding sea-birds) minimising that ID. The less the ID, the less the fuel burn. A measure of the success of this design was demonstrated by an A330 wide-body which, on loosing both engines at 40,000’ over the Atlantic, glided some 650 miles to land safely in the Canaries.

This advantage is further accentuated by a new generation of highly fuel efficient, by-pass engines.  Before the Max., the B-737 had neither. This was a factor of the very low ground-clearance of the 737 wing imposing severe engineering challenges to accommodate the significantly larger by-pass engine designs. As a result the then current generation Boeings (737-800/900) were no match for the competing Airbus types (A320NG and A321)

As can be seen from the table on the right, the bypass engines on the A320/321-neos increased the former incremental advantage of the Airbus over its Boeing equivalents (B737-8/9) into a substantial one.  Until this point, in terms of market impact, Airbus had largely been playing catch-up: because of these technical advantages, around 2015, the roles were reversed (see below).

A/c Type

LOA (ft)

Max. Range (Nm)

Max. Pax     (1 Class)

Seat Pitch/Width

In-Service Date

Boeing 737-800




28” / 16”


Airbus A321




30” / 18”







29” / 17”


This called for a completely new Boeing design and such was proposed by engineering (staffed mostly by Boeing folk) shortly after the turn of the century. However, the multi-billion dollar proposal was deferred by corporate (now staffed mostly by MD folk) which opted instead for the multi-$100 million upgrading process. In large part this was due to the parallel need to prioritise a wide-body replacement for the B767 which was the B787 Dreamliner. This was the first Boeing aircraft to match the low drag profiled wings and computerised Fly-by-Wire (FBW) technology of their Airbus nemesis. While in production some 4 years ahead of its main Airbus rival (the A350) it was nonetheless years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget (and ultimately outmatched by the later Airbus).  

So there was, and remains, no money available to deign, build and certify a new mid-market aircraft type, so Boeing were forced to opt for yet another upgrade of the 50 year-old 737 base-line design. In the short-term this proved a commercially astute decision with Boeing holding its own in the numbers game and being a lot more profitable overall than its rival. But the technical gulf between the Boeing and Airbus types was growing until, some 10 years ago, the bypass engines of the A320-Neo and 321-XLR series made it almost overwhelming.  So a way had to be found to fit the modern, and very much larger, by-pass engine to this old design. The problem was that the older engine types already only had a 19” ground clearance. So, as shown below, rather than locating the new engine under the wing as in the original classic designs, the bypass engine had to be moved forward of the wing so that it could be lifted higher off the ground.

Fig.2 – Cause and Effect – Boeing vs. Airbus narrow-body sales

              B737 power plants  –  Classic series.                New generation series with 19” ground clearance.         Max-series, way forward of the wing

But moving the power plant forward impacted the Centre of Lift such that, at high power settings (typical when taking-off), would push the nose of the aircraft up with risk of stalling. That would require use of the elevators in the tail empennage to push it back down again which among other things, creates additional drag thus decreasing fuel efficiency (thus obviating the whole point of the exercise!).  The answer was to put a small tab on the elevator and to automate the process so as to catch and correct the nose-up movement at an insipient stage – that was the main function of MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristic Augmentation System). The idea was to also make the aircraft fly and respond like the older 737-800s which had been sold in very large numbers: this the MCAS also successfully did.

So the Max sold like hot cakes with some 5000 orders before the first unit had even entered service in Indonesia with Lion Air (which was also the launch customer for the former B.900-ER and also one of the largest operators in the World of that series). With Lion also diversifying into Airbus A320 options, this was a major coup for Boeing.  But, the Sales department efforts to make the Max appear as an upgrade to the -800 series (so that pilots could more readily convert), rather than the new aircraft type it really was (requiring full certification and more onerous training), lay the seeds to the subsequent Max accidents. In Part-III, the germination of these fatal seeds will be followed in detailed slow motion.