Soft Landings

03/07/2024

I used to own a house that was built circa 1809. You know you’ve got an old house when the construction date is anybody’s guess.

When I bought the place, it had been divided into three apartments and had endured various other alterations over the previous two centuries. As part of a general restoration, my intention was to return it to a single-family home, with the layout conforming as much as possible to the original.

In one place, there was a wall that I intended to keep, but I told the contractor that there should be a doorway through it to the next room. When he started cutting a hole in the wall, he found that the doorway was already there; it had simply been plastered over.

It was a little bit eerie, like the door they used to show in the opening of The Twilight Zone, making me feel as though I had found some sort of portal back in time. Apart from that, I also felt a strong sense of affirmation. I was putting things back the way they belonged.

That was long ago, but a recent news story brought it back to mind. On January 5, an Alaska Airlines flight took off from Portland, OR, bound for Ontario, CA. It was a Boeing 737 “Max 9” carrying 171 passengers and six crew members.

Within a few minutes, the plane, which was virtually brand-new, had risen 16,000 feet, to about half of its intended cruising altitude. Suddenly, there was a loud crack, and a piece of the fuselage about the size of a refrigerator tore loose from the aircraft and disappeared into the wild blue yonder.

The passengers were terrified, as you might expect. If I have the sequence right, there was first a sudden inrush of very cold air due to depressurization, followed by powerful suction out the hole. Some odds and ends flew out, including a couple of cell phones and the shirt right off a young man’s back.

Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt. Because it was early in the flight, the flight attendants had not commenced coming around with the drink carts and the passengers had not started using the restrooms. By some weird coincidence, the two seats closest to the hole were among the few not occupied.

So the pilot calmly called air traffic control, told them he had an emergency situation and asked permission to return to the Portland airport. Shortly thereafter he landed the 737 without further incident and received a warm round of applause from everyone on board.

As soon as everyone stopped hyper-ventilating and began to look at the damage objectively, it was quite obvious that the hole very closely resembled a doorway. That’s not by accident, pardon the expression. It turns out that the interior of the airliner can be configured in different ways, and the number of seats can determine the number of exit doors that are required.

To maintain that flexibility and keep manufacturing costs down, fuselages are often built with a full allowance of doors. When the cabin is furnished, any unneeded doorways are filled with what they call a “plug,” making them nearly unnoticeable. It was one of those plugs that tore loose and took flight, eventually landing in the lawn of a local physics teacher. One of the cell phones turned up in the same neighborhood.

Somewhat surprisingly, as we learned in the days following the flight, Boeing does not build the fuselages for the 737 Max 9s. They are built by a company called Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, KS and then transported by rail to the Boeing factory in Seattle. There they are assembled along with parts from many other subcontractors and the critical component, which Boeing builds itself.

If you’re thinking that’s the engines, you would be wrong, and it’s not the electronics either. The most critical parts are the wings, which are about the only thing that would never be farmed out.

Nonetheless, Boeing is certainly responsible for the plane as a whole, and the public was shocked by the lack of quality control that resulted in a loose door plug. In the month following the incident, Boeing’s stock price had fallen by about 15 percent.

You needn’t worry, however, about the long-term stability of the firm. Unlike the rest of us, Boeing is part of what is sometimes referred to as a “duopoly.” Along with the European consortium Airbus, it is one of only two manufacturers of large commercial airliners in the world.

Airbus has had production problems of its own. But even if it didn’t, both companies have full order books for a number of years and are cranking out planes as fast as they can. Some airlines have made noises about cancelling orders, but ultimately they may not have much choice but to keep their place in line.

As far as the general public is concerned, most of us don’t pay too much attention to the provenance of the airplanes we fly on. In other words, we don’t care who built the thing, we just want to be sure someone knows how to fly it.

And they do. Make no mistake about it, commercial airlines are by far the safest way to travel and certainly many times safer than traveling by automobile. Nonetheless, when frequent fliers get together, they can all come up with stories that will send a chill up your spine.

I used to fly a lot, and I have several such stories from which to choose. The one that comes first to mind involves a flight from Chicago to my home airport in Rochester, NY. Shortly after take-off, the pilot came on the loudspeaker and told us that they were having some trouble with the hydraulic system and weren’t sure that the flaps would work properly for landing.

He went on to explain that they were currently looking for alternate airports that would have longer runways available, quite possibly Detroit. Then he went silent for quite a while, as if to let the implication sink in.

When he finally got back to us, it was to say that we were going to land in Rochester after all. Like me, I’m sure most of the passengers wondered if Rochester had somehow managed to extend its runway in the past 20 minutes.

As we approached the airport, the flight attendants informed us that the runway would be lined with firetrucks on both sides and capped with a giant mound of foam. They asked us to remove our eyeglasses and put our heads in our laps.

I took my glasses off but declined to bow my head. If this was going to be my final scene, I at least wanted to watch it.

In the end, the landing felt a little more exciting than usual, but we actually shuddered to a stop without plunging into the foam. A huge cheer immediately went up for the pilot and crew.

In that respect, our safe landing was similar to that of the Alaska Air flight, but in another way it was very different. Once we were on the ground, it was simply a case of accident avoided, welcome home and thanks for flying United. In their case it was just the beginning of a whole flurry of news stories and investigations.

Then there’s that open doorway. In business, as in life, I’m a great believer in the importance of metaphors, and the sudden appearance of a hidden door is trying to tell us something. As Yogi Berra put it, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

 


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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