For safety’s sake, nationalize Boeing

Improve quality and save lives by taking the profits out of the production process and putting workers in control. That’s a surefire fix to corporate skulduggery.

Luckily no one died when a door panel blew out on Alaska Flight 1282. PHOTO: NTSB
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Boeing has been infamous since October 2018 when nearly 200 passengers and crew died in a Lion Air 737 Max crash off the coast of Java, Indonesia. The company blamed “pilot error.” Then 157 more perished five months later when an Ethiopian Airlines Max went down shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa.

Eventually, the new automated flight control system and the failure to train pilots on it was revealed as the cause. The company tried to cover up its failing and was subsequently fined $2.5 billion by the U.S. Justice Department for lying to the watchdog Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Safety complaints and breakdowns continued. Finally, in January 2024, the panel covering an unused door blew out at 12,000 feet, opening a giant hole in the fuselage of an Alaskan Airlines flight. Luckily, no one was killed or injured. But clearly, something is disastrously wrong.

Safety comes last

Boeing management considers time taken for quality assurance (QA) to hinder production. In November 2018, it announced its “Quality Transformation” plan that would lay off 900 safety inspectors and eliminate thousands of specific examinations from each plane. This was one month after the Lion Air crash. Workers and their union, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) 751, vigorously resisted with a “Not OK to Cut QA” campaign, and the plan was curtailed after the Ethiopian Airlines accident.

In the 1980s and ’90s, neoliberalism became the rage, driving deregulation and downsizing of government, along with outsourcing by companies. Corporations focused on enriching shareholders at the expense of customers and workers. Executives of then-competitor McDonnell-Douglas squeezed it of value until it failed. Boeing directors bought the company in 1997 and put the same administrators in charge at Boeing.

All at once, the company went from being focused on innovative engineering to operating as a cash cow for shareholders and officers. To these bosses the 737, introduced in 1968, was a mature product to milk, rather than spending money to create new designs. Over the years they primarily just modified the basic plane’s size or seating capacity.

The 737 Max is assembled in Renton, Wash., just south of Seattle. About 7,500 people produce the planes from parts shipped from subcontractors all over the world. The fuselage comes via rail from Spirit AeroSystems in St. Louis. In all, there are about 400,000 parts in a finished plane. At the end of 2023, about 24 planes a month were being rolled out, with Boeing intending to nearly double that pace in coming years. The more planes, the more profits.

A Max wheel collapsed in March 2024. But Max production is not the only trouble spot. In 2011, a 6-foot hole opened in the roof of a 737-300 at 35,000 feet. In 2018, a piece of engine housing ripped off a 737, shattered a window, and killed a passenger. In 2021, an engine blade broke off a 777 on takeoff.

Engine fires erupted in two different jets in 2023. And in August 2023 the U.S. Air Force detailed six years of serious deficiencies in the 767 freighter aircraft and 767-based KC-46 tanker. The 787 Dreamliner, too, has been plagued by manufacturing problems. The 787 is assembled in South Carolina’s non-union plant, which opened in 2011.

Concessions and deregulation

Boeing used its prominence to garner a $60 million tax concession from Chicago for moving its corporate headquarters there in 2001. In 2014, it blackmailed the state of Washington into granting $6 billion in tax cuts and stripped machinists of their defined-benefit pensions. (IAM 751 members intend to improve pensions and safety in upcoming contract negotiations.)

In 2022, Boeing moved its headquarters again to Arlington, Va., to be near Congress. Consequently, Boeing received over $2 billion to build fighter jets, the new MQ-25 refueling drone, and a huge array of military ordnance at facilities in Missouri.

This is where they make the bombs being used to slaughter Palestinians in Gaza. There have been protests of this in Missouri and Washington state.

The company colluded with the governorship of the FAA to turn that public watchdog agency into a lapdog. Congress helped by underfunding the agency, which then allowed Boeing to inspect and certify its own products. FAA’s stern threats to Boeing mean little. It is incapable of serious regulation.

End private ownership

Boeing is one company among many running amok in late-stage capitalism. The greedy U.S. manufacturing culture has given way to the worse financial equity moguls, who sell any shoddy product to make a buck. They cannot be trusted with human safety.

The federal government can and should seize Boeing and run it as a public entity just as it created Amtrak.

But significant change requires another key element. Aerospace workers must be put in the pilot seat. They have the knowledge and desire to build airworthy planes serving the public interest.

Henry Noble was a computer worker at Boeing in the Seattle area from 1984–1995 and saw the push for speed over quality firsthand. Send comments to him

$62 billion

Stock buy-backs, dividends and executive pay. In the last decade, Boeing spent over $40 billion on stock buybacks and gave nearly $22 billion in dividends to shareholders while paying $573 million in executive pay, according to regulatory filings. Stock buy-backs raise prices, which enrich shareholders and executives. At the same time, Boeing put pressure on workers and the FAA to cut quality control to speed production.

Boeing’s 737 Max: an ongoing disaster

A recent independent report for the FAA finds Boeing’s safety culture still abysmal.

346 people killed in 2018 and 2019 737 Max crashes. Boeing initially blamed pilot error for its faulty flight control system.

1,800+ safety problem reports filed by airlines to federal regulators on the 737 Max from December 2020 to September 2023.

$10 million: Amount spent by Boeing on ­lobbying in one year (2023).

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