By Yuri Prasad
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2913

Boeing: making a killing in the skies

Boeing, the troubled aircraft manufacturer, has secured a "sweetheart" deal with the United States government. It will mean no major fines or jail time for the firm's bosses.
Issue 2913
 Boeing plane taking off as the company is hit by scandal

Boeing is getting away with murder (Picture: Aero Icarus)

In the fevered last moments of Lion Air flight 610 to Jakarta, Indonesia, pilots scrambled desperately to raise the nose of their Boeing 737 Max aircraft. But their efforts came to nothing. It was as if the plane had a mind of its own.

On 29 October 2018, the flight went headfirst into the Java Sea near Jakarta, the impact smashing much of the plane into powder—and killing all 189 people on board in an instant. A few months later, on 10 March 2019, the horror was repeated in Ethiopia. Here again pilots lost control of the plane as it dived of its own accord. This time 157 people died.

Boeing’s then chief executive, David Calhoun, was quick to apportion blame. He said that pilots from Indonesia and Ethiopia “don’t have anywhere near the experience that they have here in the United States”.

Crew from the West would have acted immediately to prevent the disasters, he added. But investigators soon found that the real cause of both crashes, and many other 737 Max near misses, was a faulty new software system called the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (Mcas).

Boeing designed Mcas to prevent 737 Max engines from stalling by forcing the plane’s nose to dip if a sensor detected this was a danger. But in both crashes, the software had wrongly pushed the plane into a sharp dive because this single sensor was faulty.

The investigators concluded that Boeing was to blame, not the pilots. And international authorities ordered all 737 Max aircraft grounded. The story that emerged subsequently had all the familiar features of a ­disaster made by neoliberalism.

At the turn of the millennium, Boeing bosses began to transform the company—the maker of the presidential “Airforce One” jet, various space vehicles and US military aircraft.

According to Peter Robinson, author of Flying Blind—The 737 Max Tragedy, Boeing went from a firm “ruled by engineers who thumbed their noses at Wall Street” into one that “celebrated managers for cost cutting and co-opted regulators with heaps of money”.

The Boeing 737 Max was an example of the new way of working. The firm introduced the Mcas system on the new plane so that it could use bigger engines, despite their propensity to stall. The size of the engines was important because they made it possible to run longer flights that carried more passengers.

This would make the 737 Max more attractive to airlines that were also desperate for profits. But Boeing didn’t tell pilots of the existence of Mcas and it certainly didn’t train them in how to disable it.

That was because, as a cost-cutting measure, the manufacturer had promised the airlines that no new pilot training would be needed. Boeing got around federal air safety regulators in the traditional American way. It bought political influence to reduce regulators’ role and it bullied its own staff that raised safety concerns.

Over the past four years, Boeing and its spin-off firm Spirit Aerosystems have together spent more than £40 million on lobbying and political campaign contributions. In the first nine months of 2023, Boeing donors spent nearly £8 ­million lobbying the White House, politicians and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—the ­government regulator.

Under industry pressure, the FAA moved to a model of “self-regulation” in aviation. Firms ran their own safety checks because the government assumed they wouldn’t risk the reputational damage of a plane crash. Boeing bosses knew that their planes were dangerous but wanted to sell them anyway. And they knew about the risks because their workers had told them.

Hundreds of messages sent between 2015 and 2018 show Boeing staff joking that the 737 Max was “designed by clowns who in turn were supervised by monkeys”. Managers even bragged about how they tricked a federal aviation regulator by “making them feel stupid” for trying to ask about additional training.

Many Boeing workers told friends and family, in all seriousness, that they must never fly on one of its planes. During the design of the 737 Max, one manager told an engineer, “People will have to die before Boeing will change things.”

Despite these forebodings, the lobbying and the pressure for self-regulation paid off and from 2017 Boeing was free to sell the new 737 Max worldwide. The spending on lobbyists had proved worthwhile and the profits flew in.

Between 2010 and 2020, Boeing paid out £50 billion in shareholder dividends and was able to buy back more than £30 billion worth of its own shares—thereby inflating the firm’s value. But, following the 2018 and 2019 crashes, authorities grounded the 737 Max for 18 months. Boeing and Spirit ran back to their lobbyists in the hope of getting their planes back in the air.

And US politicians danced to their paymasters’ tune. Senior US Republican Jerry Moran is on the Senate subcommittee overseeing ­aviation safety. He issued a statement demanding the FAA let the 737 Max return to the skies because of “the risk to aviation jobs”.

Democratic party senators who had also been bought joined Moran’s campaign. Spirit Aerosystems remains a top campaign contributor to Moran. Since 2019, the firm has donated tens of thousands of dollars to him and his political action committees.

Thanks to the lobbying, in June 2019 the 737 Max was flying again, but its problems kept coming.

In January this year, a door on the ill-fated plane blew out mid-flight because it was missing four key bolts. Passengers on the Air Alaska flight described the plane as having a hole in its main body “as big as a refrigerator”. Spirit Aerosystems had built both the door and the main body.

Boeing and Spirit Aerosystems shares tumbled. Then in April, just days after announcing a £126 million settlement with Air Alaska, Boeing hit disaster again.

Airline regulators in the US began an investigation after an engine cover on an older 737 fell off during take‑off and struck a wing flap. The flight returned to Denver safely but if the flap had been fatally damaged that might not have been the case.

In response, bosses have promised a new, “transparent” safety regime. And this seems to have satisfied the US government. A lawyer representing victims of the two fatal crashes said last week that authorities were about to offer Boeing a “sweetheart plea deal”.

In return for admitting liability, the firm will face only a small fine, three years of probation and independent safety audits. As if in celebration, Boeing bosses in the same week announced they had reached a deal to buy back Spirit Aerosystems for £3.7 billion, further inflating the parent company’s value.

Unsurprisingly, the victims’ families are in no mood to talk of plea bargaining. They demand a £25 billion fine for the “deadliest corporate crime in US history”. “We are common people and we don’t understand the technical terms they are using,” said Epi Samsul Komar, the father of one of the passengers on the Lion Air flight. “But if you ask me, the blame is with the plane factory.”

He is right, of course. But the rot goes far wider than Boeing and the US. It runs right through the global capitalist system. Wherever there is a disaster, profits are rarely far behind.

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