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Analysis

Putting profit first killed Boeing MAX 737 passengers, says Congressional report

On September 16, culminating an 18-month investigation, the  House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure Committee published a report on “the chain of errors that led to the crashes of Lion Air flight 610 in October 2018, and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 in March 2019” resulting in the “tragic and preventable deaths of 346 people.” Without exactly saying so, the report lays the blame for these preventable deaths on a system that prioritizes profits over peoples’ lives. Additionally, the committee’s report calls out the collusion between the Federal Aviation Administration, a public agency regulating the airline industry, and Boeing, a private company. 

The technical cause of the crashes has now been identified as a new software system in the Boeing 737 MAX, in conjunction with a faulty sensor. This controller software known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System was designed to counteract potential stalls.  MCAS was created in response to the observation that the newly redesigned 737, with larger engines placed higher up on the plane, had a tendency towards pushing the jet’s nose upward.  This tendency for the nose to push upward could cause uncontrollable stalls. The software was designed to detect the potential stalling situation by overriding the pilot controls and pushing the plane’s nose downward.  

Rather than scrapping the redesign that caused stalls, Boeing decided to create the MCAS software system as a “patch” to this hazardous design flaw. Management overrode engineers’ concerns that the MCAS would produce hazardous consequences should the sensors give incorrect data. Boeing management also vetoed an engineer’s suggested enhancement to add a second input to the MCAS activation sequence. Finally, Boeing management misled FAA regulators, presenting MCAS as an enhancement to the existing systems rather than a new control system. 

These decisions were made so as to avoid mentioning MCAS in the pilots’ manual.  Adding a description of MCAS in the manual would have required pilots go through a training certification process before being allowed to pilot the new airplane.

In short, Boeing released the 737 MAX with a new feature that would override the manual controls and point the nose of the plane at the ground based on the input of a single hardware sensor that is not infallible. The pilots had no idea that this feature existed because the operations manual had not changed from the previous version of the jet. FAA oversight officials, who were also Boeing employees, went along with this decision. Requiring training for the pilots for this new feature would have slowed down the regulation certification process.  

The first crash was criminal, and the FAA had enough knowledge at that time to ground the plane. It was not until the second crash five months later that the plane was grounded as the result of public outcry. The Congressional report mentions that for “keeping to the MAX’s production schedule, Boeing gave Michael Teal, the former Chief Project Engineer on the 737 MAX program, restricted stock options after the airplane’s first flight in 2016.”

Thus we see Boeing management consistently placed the company’s profitability and stock price ahead of all other concerns, including passenger safety. The report also shows how the FAA failed to exercise any oversight or control over Boeing. In almost every instance where the FAA regulators made attempts to exercise control, Boeing demonstrated that it could safely ignore the federal agency. In every case the motivation was a desire to cut costs and not do anything to delay certification.

The committee’s report all but says that the desire to meet the production schedule overrode any concern for the airplane’s ability to be flown safely by skilled operators. This is criminal. If there were real justice, every member of Boeing management who pushed to get this plane into production, knowing about this fatal and hidden design flaw, would be prosecuted for negligent homicide. According to a Business Insider “Victims’ families, pilots, and shareholders are also suing Boeing, accusing it of putting profits over safety.” (Business Insider)  

Let us make no mistake here. What Boeing’s upper management did is without a doubt criminal.  However, the system of capitalist profits is equally guilty of negligent homicide. Make a profit or go out of business is capitalism’s only rule. This system places profits over any other concern, determining what gets built and who has decision making power over almost all aspects of human existence. 

Sure, make Boeing pay for its crimes. Fix this situation where the FAA is basically employed by the airline industry.  But, the forces of the capitalist market that created these two airline disasters are still in play. Such tragedies will continue to occur as long as the profit motive determines what gets manufactured and for whom.

To prevent such disasters in the future we need a world where we only build what people need.  A world where providing for the needs of all the people on the planet is the strongest motivating force. To clean up the planet, stop using fossil fuels, feed, house and provide adequate medical care for everybody, we need to organize, fight back and build socialism.

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