Negligence, Corruption, and the 737 Max: Boeing Shows the Rot in Our Regulatory System

Shutterstock | Jordan Tan

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The saga of Boeing’s failed 737 Max has been continuously in and out of the news since the horrible crashes involving the aircraft in Ethiopia and Malaysia. This is somewhat unusual for a media environment with such a short attention span, but there’s a reason Boeing’s failure is the story that just won’t go away.

The more that investigators and journalists dig into the crashes, the more obvious it becomes that these tragedies were the result of systematic failures at every level of oversight – from Boeing’s C-suite executives all the way down to the production line, and even worse, a mind-boggling level of corruption from the US government. Almost all of the decision makers involved in allowing the 737 Max to roam the skies sacrificed human safety for their own greed, and in a disturbing amount of ways which together, represent one of the most damning indictments of our country’s current regulatory system.

Think that’s a stretch? Let’s break it down.

Boeing first announced it would be manufacturing the 737 Max, a more fuel-efficient version of the 737 model that had been the most popular aircraft model for 50 years, in 2011. Boeing’s main rival, the French aviation company Airbus, had just announced plans for a similar midsize fuel-efficient airplane and was courting Boeing’s American customers. The company was under immense pressure to keep its multi-million contracts with the main American airlines by developing a new model to compete with Airbus in record time – and thus the first 737 Max planes were rolled out in 2017.

As pilot and aerial software engineer Gregory Travis points out, this desperation to one-up the competition and pocket more money for its shareholders led to incredibly risky decisions in design and production that created extreme safety hazards.

First, Boeing wholeheartedly embraced offshoring for much of its design and manufacturing in the early half of the decade to enrich its shareholders, instead of centralizing production in one place where designers, line workers, mechanics, and regulators could talk to one another. The 737 Max relied on disjointed interactions between employees in disparate parts of the world, and even ended up having to delay the plane’s production several times because pieces of the plane assembled from different parts of the world quite literally didn’t fit together.

Secondly, the FAA, the US agency tasked with making sure our planes are safe to fly and American companies are following every single critical safety rule before delivering planes overseas, delegated this absolutely vital oversight power to Boeing itself in an effort to cut agency costs. Though the investigation into that self-certification process is ongoing, the FAA had considered grounding the 737 Max last year after it discovered that Boeing had deactivated a malfunction alert on the planes and made it an optional, costly extra without telling its clients (or the pilots flying the planes until after the first crash) it had done so. The fact that the administration ultimately refused to ground the planes is a shady decision that’s also coming under scrutiny at the moment as investigators dig into the cozy ties Boeing enjoys with the FAA.

It doesn’t end there. Just days ago, Boeing announced that it had found yet another 737 Max software glitch in violation of FAA safety standards that it had missed in its initial self-certification. Perhaps a company under pressure to maximize profit and manufacture a plane in record time shouldn’t be allowed to sign off on its own safety standards?

But wait – there’s even more. The FAA only let Boeing self-certify because the Trump administration required across-the-board budget cuts in 2018/19 to all federal agencies in order to fund $1.8 trillion in tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and corporations. Boeing, as one of the wealthiest corporations, got a $1.1 billion tax windfall in 2017 alone as a result of that bill. Instead of using that money to invest in more thorough internal oversight measures to compensate for the FAA’s failure, Boeing offshored most jobs at its major US facilities and spent $8.66 billion on stock buybacks to pocket even more money for its wealthy shareholders.

As if all of that wasn’t awful enough, here we arrive at perhaps the worst part. Any way you cut it, Boeing is a pillar of the American economy. It helps form the backbone of the Dow Jones stock market, is the biggest American exporter, and plays an outsized role in our politics and defense. Within the company, the 737 Max has accounted for over 47% of sales over the last few years, leading economic experts to deem the plane  “too big to fail” despite all of the systemic problems within the company and the lack of any will from the GOP to give the FAA the funding – and Congressional oversight – it needs to do its job. In concrete terms, that means that the 737 Max will, in all likelihood, re-enter the skies soon, and according to the former director of the FAA’s Accident Investigation division, that self-certification process “isn’t going to change a lot.”

All of those problems are directly responsible for the tragedies that we’ve heard so much about. Boeing’s recklessness and our government’s refusal to prioritize human safety over handouts to the rich combined to create an incredibly dangerous situation, one that left hundreds dead. If that doesn’t represent the greatest indictment of our broken economy, our pay-to-play politics, and the interplay between them that shows no signs of fixing itself without significant change in the Oval Office, Congress, and the Pentagon, then absolutely nothing does.

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