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Greed: Boeing’s avoidable time bombs

Part 1 of 2

As internal and external pressures mount to hold Boeing responsible for its criminal negligence, the giant company is exerting its immense influence to limit both its past and future accountability. Boeing whistleblowers and outside aviation safety experts are coming forward to reveal the serial, criminal negligence of Boeing’s handling of its dangerous Boeing 737 Max airplanes, grounded in the aftermath of two deadly crashes that took 346 lives. Boeing is used to having its way in Washington, D.C. For decades, Boeing and some of its airline allies have greased the wheels for chronic inaction related to the additional protection and comfort of airline passengers and airline workers.

Most notoriously, the airlines, after the hijacks to Cuba in the late 1960s and early 1970s, made sure that Congress and the FAA did not require hardened cockpit doors and stronger latches on all aircraft, costing a modest $3,000 per plane. Then the 9/11 massacre happened, a grisly consequence of non-regulation, pushed by right-wing corporatist advocacy centers.

Year after year, Flyers Rights, the airline passenger consumer group, proposed a real passengers’ bill of rights. Year after year the industry’s toadies in Congress said no. A slim version passed last year — requiring regulations creating minimum seat standards, regulations regarding prompt refunds for ancillary services not provided or on a flight not taken and a variety of small improvements for consumers.

Boeing is all over Capitol Hill. They have 100 full-time lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Over 300 members of Congress regularly take campaign cash from Boeing. The airlines lather the politicians with complimentary ticket upgrades, amenities, waivers of fees for reservation changes, priority boarding and VIP escorts. Twice, we sent surveys about these special freebies to every member of Congress with not a single response. 

That is the corrupt backdrop that at least two congressional committees have to overcome in holding public hearings into the causes of the Indonesians’ Lion Air crash last October and the Ethiopian Airline crash on March 10, 2019.

Will the Senate and House Committee invite the technical dissenters to testify against Boeing’s sequential corner-cutting on its single-sensor software that miscued and took control of the 737 Max 8 from its pilots, pulling down on the plane’s nose? Boeing’s sales-driven avoidance of producing effective manuals with upgraded pilot training was courting disaster as was outrageously leaving many of the pilots in the dark.

The congressional committees must issue subpoenas to critics of Boeing and the FAA in order to protect them from corporate and agency retaliation.

Moreover, the committees must get rid of the grotesque self-regulation that allows Boeing  to control the aircraft certification process for the FAA. This dangerous delegation has worsened in recent years because Trump and Republicans in Congress have cut the FAA’s budget.

So, citizens, watch out for bloviating congressional committee members castigating Boeing executives at the witness table before the television cameras and then doing nothing once the television broadcasts fade away.

Boeing’s 737 series started in 1967 and has had a good engineering safety record in this country. But Boeing was in a rush with its Boeing 737 Max 8. They had to catch up with the growing orders for a similar-sized passenger jet built by Airbus. Being in a rush meant a modification that added more seats (a key motivation), that led to larger engines that affected the aerodynamics of the plane that led to the inadequate, mostly uncommunicated software fix to the pilots. Step by step, top management pushed the engineers in ways that compromised their professional expertise and each slide set the stage for a deeper slide. Now, the press is reporting a criminal probe by the Justice Department. The Inspector General of the Department of Transportation is also investigating the FAA’s certification of 737 Max 8.

Years ago, aviation experts say, Boeing should have developed a brand new aircraft design for such intermediate distances. But Boeing dug in and compliant FAA officials dropped the ball. And President Trump has failed to fill three top slots at the FAA since January 2017.

Installing artificial intelligence replacing or overpowering human intelligence in ever more complex machines, such as modern aircraft or weapons systems or medical technology, is the harbinger of what’s to come.  In a 2014 BBC interview, Stephen Hawking, the famed theoretical physicist, said:  “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” And in 2018, Elon Musk said: “If AI has a goal and humanity just happens to be in the way, it will destroy humanity as a matter of course without even thinking about it. No hard feelings.”

At the wreckage near Bishoftu in a small pastoral farm field and in the Java Sea off Indonesia lie the remains of the early victims of arrogant, algorithm-driven corner cutting by reckless corporate executives and their captive government regulators.

Part 2 next time.

Consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader grew up in Winsted and is a graduate of The Gilbert School. He is the founder of the American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted.