Boeing’s 737 Planes Flunk Again

Photograph Source: Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) – Public Domain

By now, no one with any sense wants to fly in a Boeing 737. On January 5, the large door plug in the side of a 737 Max-9 popped out mid-air, leaving a gaping hole into the sky and terrifying passengers, none of whom, miraculously, were harmed. In 2018 and 2019, a different model, the 737 Max-8, was involved in two crashes with massive loss of life, for a combined total of 346 deaths, due to defective flight control software. Given these tragic and alarming events, it’s no surprise regulators now closely scrutinize these planes – amid reports of everything from loose bolts and other evidence of shoddy workmanship, to cost-cutting corner-cutting. Even secretary of state Antony Blinken, who formerly had Boeing as a corporate client, was stranded in Davos January 18, because guess what? His Boeing plane broke down. And a few days earlier, a Boeing 737-800 crew found a crack in the cockpit window. That flight in Japan was aborted. So is it any surprise a photo of clowns assembling a Boeing plane made the rounds on twitter January 18? After all, that’s a logical conclusion as to how these rickety contraptions are thrown together, amirite?

The problem, to any casual observer, is a stupendously greedy corporate culture. That’s what ails most American conglomerates, so there’s no reason to assume Boeing’s any different. It’s just that at Boeing, the take-the-money-and-run upper management ethos could cause accidents and kill people. Other industries – say the railroad one, where workers get insufficient down time, or slaughterhouses that employ 13-year-olds on the night shift – are disasters waiting to happen. But at Boeing, they already did.

So finally, the Federal Aviation Administration plunged into the act in a big way. On January 12, the FAA announced it was “increasing oversight of Boeing production and manufacturing,” according to the agency’s press release. The FAA’s actions include: “An audit involving the Boeing 737-9 Max production line and its suppliers to evaluate Boeing’s compliance with its approved quality procedures; increased monitoring of Boeing 737-9 Max in-service events; assessment of safety risks around delegated authority and quality oversight, and examination of options to move these functions under independent, third-party entities.” Boeing bigwigs must be saying uh-oh – someone else is gonna supervise the safety production of our cash cow, meaning we may have to spend money to make the stupid thing air-worthy.

The FAA also opened an investigation “to determine if Boeing failed to ensure completed products conformed to its approved design and were in condition for safe operation.” Well, it sure looks like they failed in this regard. The only other explanation for a door bursting out mid-air is that the design was faulty to begin with, and that seems much less likely. “This incident should have never happened and it cannot happen again,” the FAA wrote Boeing January 11. “Boeing’s manufacturing practices need to comply with the high safety standards they’re legally accountable to meet.” Two days earlier, the FAA wrote that “every Boeing 737-9 Max with a plug door will remain grounded until the FAA finds each can safely return to operation.”

Cynics are to be forgiven for doubting that even this new scrutiny will cleanse Boeing’s corporate culture. After all, this is a VERY politically plugged-in corporation – as in GOP honcho, presidential candidate Nikki Haley-connected. According to the Lever January 12, after those two crashes in 2018 and 2019, “Haley helped Boeing kill an initiative to force the company to more comprehensively disclose its spending to influence safety regulations.” There’s that GOP bugaboo – regulations – and the tactic here seems to have been, if you can’t beat ‘em, influence ‘em.

This all happened while Haley served on the Boeing board in 2020. The board “unanimously opposed shareholders’ transparency proposal…designed to uncover whether Boeing had bought itself regulatory relief from federal safety officials…Amid allegations of fraud and a coverup of safety problems following the disasters – resulting in a $243 million fine and $3 billion in compensation to airline’s and victims’ families – Haley served on the board’s audit committee.” Boeing spends tens of millions of dollars on politics. The Lever reports that the company spent over $10.6 million in the first three quarters of 2023 “to court lawmakers and win safety exemptions.” No wonder jet doors blow out mid-air, bolts rattle loosely around, cracks appear in the cockpit window and the secretary of state’s plane has an oxygen problem. Good money was spent to obviate scrutiny, which in turn subjected passengers to these privileges of 737 air travel.

So what did Boeing do with its cash over the past decade if not shower it on passenger safety? Investor dividends, corporate payouts, ceo bonuses – that’s what. To the tune of $69 billion, according to the Lever. “By some estimates, the amount spent on stock buybacks…was more than the projected cost of making safety upgrades that experts said were necessary.” The company also “laid off tens of thousands of workers in 2020,” in a year when its new ceo pulled down $21 million. There were similar doings at Boeing’s parts supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, whose former employees allege in a lawsuit that “production issues resulted from a failure to hire sufficient personal.” So much for Boeing’s hoary moniker – “an engineering company run by engineers.” Those engineers were in the unemployment line, while corporate fat cats stuffed their pockets with moolah that did NOT go to ensuring safety.

This engineering company became a corporation dedicated to shareholders’ and corporate officers’ wallets back in 1997, according to the Lever, when Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas. That corporation was “already shifting [their] company towards shareholder values,” an economics professor told the publication (shareholder values being a euphemism for exhaust the workers, cheat the customers and extract every last dime from the firm, in other words financialize). Boeing handed control “to former McDonnell Douglas ceo Harry Stonecipher, a cut-throat corporate operative who liked to say, ‘you can make a lot of money going out of business.’” Former dem congressman Peter DeFazio summed up the change thus: “My stock options and Wall Street have the final say, not the engineers. And that’s how we ended up with a [737]Max.” Well, Stonecipher was right about one thing: if flying all these 737 turkeys ultimately bankrupts Boeing, you can be sure its corporate brass and Wall Street investors will still make out like bandits.

The broader implications of Boeing’s descent are, for the public, terrifying, because this company is but an extreme example of a nationwide corporate malaise. Most supposedly industrial firms are in business to enrich their investors and ceos, which means trimming safety and quality control efforts, and boast total support from the congressional GOP and lots of dems, too. But nowhere are the results as ghastly and glaring as with airlines. The public trusts (or it did) that when it steps onto a plane, properly trained engineers have ascertained that the vehicle is fit to fly – not overworked, underpaid employees, who miss things like faulty door plugs, loose bolts or, as happened in 2018 and 2019, things much worse, namely design flaws in the flight control software. The stakes here are life and death. Boeing thinks it’s just about more money for its financial pooh-bahs. The company still doesn’t get it.

How could they? Here in America, we’ve financialized our industrial base. Safety is a bothersome afterthought. Frankly, it’s difficult to see how you improve things at a firm like Boeing without changing that whole corporate culture along with its bought-and-paid-for representatives in congress. Everybody in the U.S. thinks financialization is great – until the planes stop dropping out of the sky. Then they just can’t seem to figure out what happened. Well, it’s no mystery. Somebody got rich cutting corners on these 737 lemons and it ain’t your average passenger.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.