Boeing 737 MAX Grounded. Photo: Chuyi Chuang

Wouldn’t it be great for Boeing if the 737 MAX crisis just disappeared from the media? I mean, so many corporate scandals disappeared way faster.

This one has gone from “My Audi crashed itself” to “My Tesla caught fire at a rate way lower than all other cars!” to “New Coke.”

Outrage Fatigue Doesn’t Work Here

Outrage fatigue, which is now something people rely on in crisis management, is long out of the picture.

There has been no other news, at least in the aviation world, that can shift public consciousness far away enough that Boeing can keep trying to manage this crisis outside of the public eye.

Sadly, for Boeing, there isn’t going to be. Oddly, to those of us in aviation media, outrage fatigue is a thing.

For a long time, I legitimately stopped caring about the 737 MAX and expected a typical corporate-American fake mea culpa—no real changes to be made, and a lifetime of myself and my partner never flying on one.

Except, it looks like—in a bizarre puff of logic—things are actually working as they are supposed to!

RICO Suavé

The scariest word to any person is an abbreviation they’ve probably never heard of.

RICO, which stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization, might be one of them.

If someone says RICO to you, your life is over. You are going to be burning money on lawyers and lose.

A good AUSA (which stands for Assistant United States Attorney, in case you’re not familiar with the term)—or at least an AUSA in Chicago—with the right grand jury, can get a RICO indictment against a ham and cheese sandwich.

RICO is incredibly broad, incredibly hard to be fully acquitted from, and allows the feds an incredible degree of investigative scope into any potential suspect.

All you have to say to a judge to get a subpoena is “RICO.”

Now, I am not a lawyer, just a nerd who is fascinated by prosecutorial overreach—but hear me out. Now, of course, the feds won’t comment on an ongoing investigation—and good for them. In the words of my law professor, Lionel Hutz, Esq. that could cause a “bad court thingy.”

The other day, The Seattle Times posted that the DOJ probe into Boeing has expanded beyond the 737 MAX. They state that sources familiar with the investigation have subpoenaed documentation about allegedly substandard work on the Boeing 787s coming from the manufacturer’s assembly line in Charleston, South Carolina.

In the words of Woodward and Bernstein, or at least their Linda Lovelace-inspired aid, “What did [Boeing] know and when did [they] know it?”

That’s an integral question to a potential RICO investigation, and if you are at all familiar with how they work—as I seem to be for no apparent reason; it gives a very big hint as to how the DOJ is investigating Boeing’s potential malfeasance.

The question the feds are asking, or attempting to prove, or presenting to a grand jury is; “has Boeing demonstrated a desire to compromise safety in a manner that is both concealed from the public and concealed from their investors?”

That’s not a good question.

I would suspect the reason that so little is known about the DOJ investigation is as a courtesy to Boeing and their investors.

With a major institution like Boeing, any action done rashly would have an effect on large sectors of the American economy.

I strongly believe that any investigation of similar scope into a smaller firm would be leaking like a sieve and have them down in penny stock territory.

The DOJ is in a tough spot. They have to be impartial, they can’t cave to public pressure in any way. A good DOJ investigation is like a stealth bomber—you don’t know the scope, or the target until the indictments are unsealed.

So, I admit: I am speculating.

But it’d be so easy for any AUSA—or similar federal prosecutor—to use RICO as a method to gather data into anything about Boeing’s potential criminal negligence in the 737 MAX saga that I had to put it out there.

I’ve never seen anyone else say it, but to me it’s so obvious!

Unfortunately, it gets worse for Boeing.

12MHz and 68 pins

That’s a Harris 80286.

Can it do floating point math? No.

It can execute, roughly, 0.21 instructions per clock.

Does that say “distributed system” to you?

Not me.

Thing is, according to reasonably reliable sources – that’s what the 737 MAX software runs on.

Before I go any further, I have to state that all airplanes run generations behind the bleeding edge of hardware design in the name of cost, safety, and reliability.

No one wants a zero-day CPU instruction set bug grounding an entire fleet because some dumbass at Intel designed on-chip WiFi for the consumer market, and because of a common fab, the enterprise chips still have the feature, you just have to run some bizarre emulator… You see where I’m going.

Bad news. So you can’t begrudge Boeing for using the 286 architecture to run the 737 MAX software, at all.

Airbus—just to be show-offs or something—when it comes to Kung Fu, they decided to write the entirety of the A32X fly-by-wire software to run on a combo of Motorola 68000s and 186s.

The problem with the Paleozoic-era hardware is that two AOA (angle of attack) inputs, when combined with an inelegantly coded MCAS, can overload the CPU in present iterations of the code.

The FAA calls issues related to this, that came up in the simulator, “catastrophic.” It’s not a term they mean to use to fear monger, of course. But it’s not a happy word all the same.

Software is a challenge, well no. Elegantly-coded software is a challenge.

There are also so many questions as what the FAA will consider “acceptable.” Parallelism would be a kludge that some may consider a vast divergence from the 737NG. New hardware would definitely be considered an extensive modification that, given the realities of a post-MCAS world, will be gone over by CS professors and experts the world over before it so much as is allowed to carry a mouse.

It doesn’t matter how Boeing, ultimately, solves this problem—it’s going to add considerably more time to the aircraft’s return to service than they and their shareholders would enjoy.

Until I know more, I am in no position or want to speculate. You can solve a software problem in ten seconds with fresh eyes, or it could take huge team years.

The Suppliers

Boeing can, probably, absorb the cash-flow hit from having no 737 MAX deliveries, but they can’t endure it forever. At some point, there will simply be an entropically high number of 737 MAX on the ground that something will have to be done to either stop or slow production.

Spirit would be in for a world of hurt.

CFM (engine manufacturer), though, they’d be fine. That scares Boeing.

If the CFM sales team could lock up nothing more than ~50% of all narrowbody sales forever – they’d be thrilled. Heck, even if they could lock up sure thing sales to Airbus customers for the leap 1A without any question of when the 1B may come back…

You can see why Boeing wants to keep the engine line going their way. That’d be a large blow to the development of their next aircraft. It’d sour a long relationship.

Spirit and Boeing can always work something out. Everyone else can either get lines of credit from Boeing or other aviation work to stay alive.

CFM would be too well off, and that’d upset the duopolistic hegemony.

Our very own poll

For the past 60 days, we ran a poll both on and through Twitter.

The very simple question: Would you feel safe flying on a Boeing 737 MAX once the grounding is lifted? brought some impressive and overwhelming results:

52% of the +2,200 voters said they’d still fly on the MAX. Good for them. Why? Because by the time the MAX comes back, it will probably be the most over-engineered and safest aircraft ever made.

But what happens to the other 48%?

The numbers speak for themselves.