Did Boeing’s choices kill 346 airline passengers?

Boeing Airlines, which has been raking in profits, is scrambling after having two crashes of its 737 Max 8 passenger jet, killing a total of 346 people in the last five months.  

The  Indonesian Lion Air jet went down in the Java Sea Oct. 29, 2018, killing all 189 passengers. The Ethiopian Airlines crash at Addis Ababa on March 10 ended in the death of all 157 on board.

Now Boeing is involved in a public relations fiasco. Why? To keep its monopoly position as a worldwide aircraft producer — a position backed up with orders for 4,783 of the 737 Max jets — Boeing made profit-driven decisions that undermined basic passenger safety.

In January Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg announced the company made $10.5 billion in profit in 2018 and had a record $100 billion in sales.  Boeing also took over Brazilian plane maker Embraer in February. Boeing bought 80 percent of the commercial unit of Embraer for $5.6 billion — considered a conquest for U.S. imperialism.

Muilenburg announced that the Renton, Wash., factory of 12,000 workers would raise production of 737 Max planes from the already breakneck speed of 52 a month to 57 a month.  

But that doesn’t seem so likely anymore.

Treacherous software

Boeing had installed a new software system — Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — in the 737 Max to avoid stalls shortly after takeoff. A stall can occur if the plane is rising too quickly at a steep angle. To counteract the jet’s powerful engines just after takeoff, MCAS forces the nose of the plane to dip. That can trigger a steep dive if the MCAS continues to force the nose down, as happened in the Lion Air crash.

Investigators believe that faulty data from sensors on the Lion Air plane might have caused the system to fail.

According to Aviation Week and the Daily Beast, the MCAS system operated without any input or knowledge from pilots. It wasn’t even in the pilots’ manuals. Intervention from pilots can keep the plane under control, but the pilot has to understand the MCAS system and how to counteract it in an emergency.

Just after the Lion Air crash, which exposed the issue of MCAS, the Allied Pilots Association put out a statement: “This is the first description you, as 737 pilots have seen (of the MCAS system).  It is not in the AA737 Flight Manual Part 2, nor is there a description in the Boeing FCOM (Flight Crew Operations Manual). It will be there soon.” (Daily Beast, Nov. 13)

It took until the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash to get 370 other 737 Max planes, which were still flying, grounded. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration resisted the rest of the world until it finally grounded the 737 Max on March 13.

The Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max jet crash, which has not been fully investigated, appears to have experienced a similar scenario, based so far on flight data.

Safety features ‘optional’

As the pilots of the Ethiopian and Indonesian airlines struggled to get control of their doomed airplanes, they lacked two basic safety features from the MCAS system. That’s because Boeing had listed them as optional features requiring extra payment.  Regulators didn’t require them, so the two low-cost airlines didn’t order them.

These two features are the angle of attack indicator and the disagree lite, both optional features said to be critical, but not installed without extra payment. Boeing makes from $800,000 to $2 million per plane on optional features in the 737 Max, which explains why management wanted these features to require extra payments.

In another attempt to keep its costs down, Boeing pressured families of Lion Air’s deceased passengers into signing a form for compensation just after the crash. The families were herded into a conference room and handed a complex form which included a pledge not to sue Lion Air. They were told that by signing the form they would receive $91,600 in compensation.  

While this sum was welcomed by some who lost breadwinners, it was the minimum allowed under Indonesian law.  The document included a huge list of contractors for Boeing, who the relatives could also not sue if they were going to collect the $91,600. This document is now said to be illegal.

More than 20 relatives of those who died on the plane are suing Boeing in the U.S. for negligence.

How did Boeing get away with such a blatantly unsafe feature as MCAS?  The government regulatory agency, the FAA, said Boeing could regulate itself. That’s even written into law.  The Organization Designation Authorization Program was established by the FAA in 2005. The ODAP allows aspects of the certification process to be performed by the plane makers.

The FAA reauthorization bills of 2012 and 2018 supposedly make safety reviews quicker and less costly. According to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, however, this “left the fox guarding the hen house.”

Patrick Shanahan, who had a long executive career at Boeing, is now Secretary of Defense. He is a warmonger who appears to be highly favored by the Trump administration. Talk about a cozy relationship. Boeing’s Political Action Committee kicked in $5.9 million to federal candidates in the 2018 election cycle. The company employed 98 lobbyists last year and spread money to 375 members of Congress.

Some airlines are talking about cancelling their orders for Boeing Max planes. On March 25, China put in an order for 300 planes from Airbus, Boeing’s competitor, in a $35 billion deal. This is seen as a big move away from Boeing.

Airlines are saying they’ll have huge losses as a result of grounding the Boeing Max.  Financial analysts predict it will be two-to-three months before the 737 Max will get back into service.  Boeing will have to find a fix for the plane, and air safely regulators from around the world will have to approve the fix.

Despite all Boeing’s wealth and power and their appropriation of skilled mechanics and engineers’ labor, the company is having a breakdown in its safety record and how to address it.  It’s too much in a hurry in its mad quest for profits to satisfy its ruling-class investors.

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