The Downfall of Boeing: Its Planes and Company

Photograph Source: Aka The Beav from Seattle, Washington – CC BY 2.0

The documentary Downfall: the Case Against Boeing confines its scope to the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 (which occurred on October 29, 2018, in Indonesia) and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 (March 10, 2019, in Addis Ababa). Both planes crashed shortly after their takeoffs (13 minutes for 602, six minutes for 210), killing everyone on board.

In both cases, the plane was a brand-spanking-new Boeing 737 MAX 8. In both cases, Boeing blamed pilot error by the stinky pagan wogs, who were too stupid to fly anything more complex than a paper airplane.

In both cases, the crash was traced directly to problems with the sensors and flight control systems on the plane–specifically, something called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). The Lion Air crash led a number of countries to issue advisories about the MAX 8. After the Ethiopian Air crash, countries began grounding the model.

The first–and credit to the documentary for pointing this out–was China. The US, unsurprisingly, was the last country to take that step (March 13, 2019, three days after the crash).


Here’s something you won’t get from the documentary. It’s not surprising that the US was last. Remember, these events happened in 2018-2019– meaning Donald Trump was president and Mitch McConnell’s wife (Elaine Chao) was Transportation secretary.

More importantly, during the period when both crashes occurred, there was nobody running the show at the Federal Aviation Administration.

The 17th Administrator (who served from December 6, 2011 – January 6, 2018) was Michael Huerta. He was a technocrat with zero experience managing an aviation system (other than being a commissioner of New York City’s Department of Ports, International Trade and Commerce). Barack Obama appointed him as Deputy Administrator in 2010; he was promoted to the top job when his predecessor quit.

Huerta’s term expired on January 6, 2018; his interim replacement was a Trump-appointed Deputy Administrator. Dan Elwell was a former pilot for American Airlines who became the company’s chief lobbyist and later head of the Aerospace Industries Association (the industry’s lobbying organization). You can probably guess how much he cared about safety and regulation.

Elwell didn’t leave the post until Stephen Dickson (a former pilot with 27 years running flight operations for Delta) was confirmed on August 12, 2019.

During the interim between Huerta and Dickson, 346 people died.


The documentary accurately explains what happened, but it offers the technical stuff in bits and pieces, spread out over the film’s 90 minutes. It doesn’t do a great job of explaining, in a structured way, exactly how Boeing got into the mess.

The design of the Boeing 737 began in 1964; the first model was tested in April 1967 and began flying commercially in February 1968. It was designed and built from scratch, using lessons learned from the 727, but everything else was new. The 737 has been in service ever since.

That a piece of technology could continue to offer competitive performance is remarkable (would you want a TV first built in 1968?) and partly terrifying–more than six decades, you should have made it obsolete. Boeing has updated its design and changed the configurations–the 737 MAX is the fourth major version of the plane. But it’s still a 737, albeit with tweaks.

Boeing was resting on its laurels, raking in profits and boosting dividends. The third ‘generation” (the “737 Next Generation”) began production in 1996 and hit the runways in 1997. Which is why Airbus was able to clean Boeing’s clock with the 320neo in 2014.


Since I’m trying to supplement the film, not rehash it, I’ll introduce the competition. Airbus Industrie GIE was formed in 1970, through a merger of a French company (Aérospatiale-Matra), an English firm (Hawker Siddeley), a German one (DASA) and a Dutch one (Fokker-VFW ). The goal was to produce an “Airbus”–a wide-body aircraft that could transport over 100 passengers over short to medium distances (all you need to get from point to point in Europe) whose workmanship approached the three US companies (Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed) who dominated the commercial airline industry, due to their high-quality models.

You could make jokes–and the “Big Three” did. What do you get when you combine the quality of German food, French customer service and British flexibility and willingness to change?

Another way you could have framed it: what happens if you blend French design with German craftsmanship and English quality control and cost management?

(One thing the US overlooked. The “D” in the German airline company DASA stood for “Daimler”. As in Daimler-Benz. As in “Mercedes.”)

It took a while for Airbus to figure things out. The merged companies battled for control. They couldn’t agree on what they should do. Was the path to success through military or civilian planes? Passenger or cargo? Short-range or long-distance?

The biggest steps forward were probably (1) the Spanish aviation company CASA joining up in 1977 and (2) British Aerospace buying Hawker in 1979. That pretty much eliminated any competing firms in the Common Market, and made it “Us against America.”


Meanwhile, American aviation decided to focus on profits, with encouragement from Wall Street and the administration of President Horndog the First. In 1995, Lockheed merged with Martin-Marietta (a huge defense contractor). That effectively took it out of the commercial aircraft industry.

(By 2010, Lockheed-Martin was getting 85% of its revenues from US government contracts and 13% from foreign governments. Commercial revenue fell to 2%.)

Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas (also a defense contractor) merged in 1997. The documentary correctly makes the latter company the villain of the piece, blaming it for destroying the quality control processes at Boeing. Here, the film is substantially correct.

M-D had been formed by a merger in 1967. McDonnell Aircraft was a government contractor that found sucking at the public teat much more profitable– and much less difficult– than competing for business. If something doesn’t work, the Pentagon will give you unlimited extensions (while still paying your bills). If you simply can’t make something work, they’ll let you rewrite the specs to accept worse performance.

When Douglas Aircraft ran into a cash crunch trying to balance the demands of commercial aviation and military work, McDonnell scooped them up in 1967. 30 years later, they spun the same siren song for Boeing: “Merge with us and you’ll make a fortune.”

Then McDonnell-Douglas did the same bullshit that Jack Welch did to GE: Slash the research budget, eliminate the people in charge of quality and project management and sell the current models until people stop buying.

“Why are you wasting all this money trying to make your product better?,” the mindset went. “With Lockheed gone, we’re the only game in town. You don’t think airlines are gonna buy planes from a joint project between Nazis and Cheese-eating Surrender Monkeys, do you?”

Which, in the 1990s, was true, Just as it had been true– in the 1960s– that no red-blooded, God-Fearing American would drive a rice-burning sardine can with a lawnmower engine that was built by a bunch of Japanese.

Both perceptions ultimately changed–and for the very same reason.


Airbus’s first model was the A300 (a twin-engine widebody with up to 247 seats and a range of 4,000 miles). It began production in 1972 went into commercial use in 1974 and was sold until 2007.

It sold only 561 units, because the plane was designed for large capacity, long-distance flights and suffered on fuel efficiency. But what made it unsuited for flights from Italy to Spain made it ideal for carrying cargo. The three customers who bought the most A300s were FedEx, UPS and European Air Transport.

The A320 was designed for people. It was announced in 1984, had the first test flights in 1987, and entered service in 1988. It had a smaller capacity (135-190 people) and shorter range, but better fuel efficiency. It’s still in service and Airbus has sold over 11,000–primarily to American Airlines for regional flights.

The A330 (designed in 1990, released in 1992, in service in 1994) was another step forward, It was the first model to offer a choice of engines and configurations. You could cram up to 400 people in it to shuttle around Europe or accommodate fewer people and use it to cross oceans. However you set it up, it would meet published specs.

It’s still in service, has sold almost 1,600 units and its big fans are Delta, Turkish Air, Aer Lingus (Ireland) and China Eastern.

Airbus funneled all that experience (and lessons from iterations and less unique models) to create the A320neo. That plane was announced in 2010, made its first flight in 2014 and went into service in 2016. The 320neo has a fully redesigned body, a new generation of high-powered, fuel-efficient engines, and scads of design improvements. The most noticeable, if you’re a passenger, are “winglets” (which look like shark fins at the end of wings, but reduce drag and offer greater stability).

The most noticeable–if you’re an airline–is fuel efficiency. The 320neo gets 15-20% better mileage than anything Boeing has. Airbus literally can’t build 320neos fast enough to match the demand. At last count, 130 different airlines have ordered a combined 10,350… and Airbus has only been able to build 3,200.


Boeing was caught flatfooted. They had nothing in development–why build a new plane if the ones you have now are still selling?

They needed to do what Airbus had done–completely re-engineer the design, so they could take advantage of the latest technology. But they didn’t have time to do it.

More to the point, Boeing wasn’t any fucking good at building planes by this point. Consider the 787 “Dreamliner”. Boeing initially announced the 787 in January of 2003. They didn’t get a prototype built until July 8, 2007. And it had so many issues that the first flight didn’t occur until December of 2009. The 787 didn’t go into service until October or 2011–and when airlines began flying it, they reported an astonishing number of different issues.

Eight years from design to “in service, “and the 787 was pulled out of service in 2013 for four months because its batteries kept imitating Samsung phones (catching on fire). Cost overruns mean that Boeing is still in the red on the 787. They’ve sold 1,100, but they won’t break even until they deliver 1,500 to 2,000.


What Boeing did with the 737 MAX 8 was slap a new engine on a 737 body with a few tweaks. Because the new engine was so much larger than the older ones, they had to mount it higher to avoid drag. That change mucked up its handling. If you pulled back too hard on the stick, the 737 MAX 8 would stall.

Boeing’s solution was the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). It put a sensor at the front of the plane. ONE.

If that sensor decided that the plane was climbing too rapidly–meaning in danger of stalling–MCAS would engage. It would flash a shitload of lights, set off all sorts of warnings in the cockpit… and then automatically push the nose of the plane sharply downward.

Towards the ground.

MCAS would do that no matter how hard the pilots tried to pull back on the controls. It would apply as much force as it believed it needed to, until that sensor was satisfied that the plane was leveling out.

What would happen if that one sensor malfunctioned? Boeing figured that probably wouldn’t happen. If it did, the pilots would have to shut off MCAS. And they had to shut off MCAS, Boeing’s internal studies showed, within ten seconds. Any longer, and the weight and speed of the plane–with some help from gravity–would produce enough momentum to send the plane into the ground. You wouldn’t be able to pull out.


If you know anything about flying, you’ll realize how insane that is. If the lights on the instrument panels go off, it’ll take you a second or two to identify the problem. Then your first step will be to check other instruments to confirm the problem. That’s 1-2 seconds more. Deciding what to do burns a second or two. By the time you realize it’s an instrument failure–and you need to shut off the system (in the words of pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who served as an expert) “maniacally pushing you into the ground”–you’re probably out of time.

Assuming you even know that MCAS exists. And Boeing guaranteed that no pilot would.

As the Downfall explains carefully, Boeing didn’t document what MCAS was or what it did. And Boeing actually refused to offer training on its use–even when Lion Air specifically asked for it.

FAA rules are very strict about training. If a plane’s systems contain new technology that changes the operational procedure, the manufacturer has to offer full training to every pilot in the fleet on its use. You can’t just watch a PowerPoint or a YouTube video–it means taking classes and spending time in the simulators and then passing tests. The time required to train a few hundred pilots would have kept the 737 MAX 8s from being approved to fly for several months.

So Boeing didn’t tell Lion Air. And when Flight 610 crashed, the company blamed the pilots, saying that any American pilot would have had the training to handle the plane.

Internal documents showed that Boeing knew what had happened, and realized they needed to fix MCAS. They thought it might take six weeks and they figured the odds of a second crash were infinitesimally low.

CEO Dennis Muilenberg’s instructions (caught on tape) were explicit: “I don’t give a shit what happens. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up or anything else, if it’ll save it, save this plan. That’s the whole point. We’re going to protect our people if we can.”

Actually, that was what the taping system caught Richard Nixon saying to his White House staff during Watergate. But the instructions coming from Boeing’s senior leadership were equally direct and more appalling.

And they delayed making fixes for five months. When Ethiopian Air 302 crashed, aviation regulators around the world took matters into their own hands.

The FAA wouldn’t allow the 737 MAX 8 to fly again until November 18, 2020. That’s a year and eight months (619 days).

Amazingly, when the scope of the disaster became fully known, Boeing’s Board of Directors voted (on December 23, 2020) to give CEO Dennis Muilenburg a $55 billion bonus.

No, wait, that’s what Tesla did with Grifter Elon Musk. Boeing asked Muilenberg to resign. He agreed and forfeited $14 million in performance bonuses. But he kept the full $62.8 million from his severance package.

And, no, that is not a joke.


The documentary decides to go in a number of directions that I don’t entirely endorse. It makes the widow of the pilot of Lion Air 610 a main character, as well as the American father of one of the passengers on Ethiopian Air 302. (Of course, she’s a pretty white woman).

It tells the story of how McDonnell-Douglas gutted Boeing through the eyes of three staff members–only one of whom I really felt added a lot.

It makes the very solid decision to feature some of the pilots who spoke out against the 737 MAX 8. It does not– and I think this is chickenshit– mention that Dan Carey (and some of the others) are union officials. The film was made by Imagine (run by Brian Grazer and “Little Opie Cunningham”) so they’re not gonna get into politics or class warfare. Opie (who made THE DA VINCI CODE without mentioning the Catholic Church and HILLBILLY ELEGY without talking about Republicans or Sackler Pharmaceuticals) is as far from hard-hitting as it gets.

The film makes the guy in government most responsible for taking action to be retired Oregon Congressman Peter De Fazio (who was chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as well as a longtime member of the Progressive Caucus). I think this is substantially correct. But Trump was in power and the Senate was Republican.

It would have been nice to discuss the FAA’s non-feasance, and to point out that the FAA chair who let the 737 MAX 8 get approved was an Obama appointee. But this is a movie that paints in broad strokes and doesn’t drill down.

It’s still well worth seeing. Using a simulator to show what was going on in the cabin was a nice decision. And it gets the facts right.

I will offer kind words for filmmaker Rory Kennedy,  the child of Robert Kennedy who ought to be running for president.

If you know that campaign, you might recall that Ethel Kennedy (Bobby’s wife) was pregnant at the time her husband was assassinated. That child– born on December 12, 1968; the youngest of 11– was Rory.

RFK, Jr. is as bad a seed as one can get, and I wasn’t enamored with Kathleen or Congressional Critter Joe (not the one who ran against Ed Markey, a different moderate). Rory is the real deal. She was arrested at a protest outside the South African Embassy in her teens and organized a protest supporting migrant farmworkers at a Providence supermarket in college.

I say this even though Kennedy is a challenge for me to like, because so much of her life is fueled by privilege. She founded a documentary company with Vanessa Vadim (daughter of filmmaker Roger and actress “Hanoi Jane” Fonda). She did an HBO series about AIDS that was funded by Jeffrey Epstein’s wingman (through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

She made a film about the uplifting challenge by The Rock (back when he was Cory Booker) running for Mayor of Newark. She did a film about the soldiers who tortured people at Abu Ghraib… but found that many of them weren’t totally evil people. (The Neo-Times could have told me that.) She made a 1999 film about how hard it is to grow up in Appalachia and a 2010 film about how fences at the Mexican border don’t really work. She’s about to release a film on Synanon

The subjects are all worthwhile and the viewpoints are never horrible. But they always make things a little too pat, never go quite far enough– and a lot of them are on her name. (Many of us think our moms were nifty, but HBO wouldn’t fund my film…)

On the other, she has had more than her share of tragedy– her dad was killed before she was born, one brother died before her eyes (in a ski accident; she tried to keep him alive) another brother died of a drug overdose and her wedding (to a college classmate) had to be postponed because her cousin and his wife crashed their plane into an ocean (entirely without Boeing’s assistance).

I don’t have to deal with stuff like that. Nor do I have to live my life knowing Faux News and TMZ are always ready to pounce on me.

But when Kennedy’s wedding was rescheduled, it was held in Greece, at the home of a billionaire shipping magnate (not Onassis). Details like that make unsnarked appreciation come hard.