Boeing Might Represent the Greatest Indictment of 21st-Century Capitalism

By Marshall Auerback, a market analyst and commentator. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A veteran commercial pilot and software engineer with over three decades of experience has just written the most damning account of the recent Boeing 737 fiasco. At one level, author Gregory Travis has provided us with the most detailed account of why a particular plane model once synonymous with reliability became a techno-death trap. But ultimately, his story is a parable of all that is wrong with 21st-century capitalism; Boeing has become a company that embodies all of its worst pathologies. It has a totally unsustainable business model—one that has persistently ignored the risks of excessive offshoring, the pitfalls of divorcing engineering from the basic R&D function, the perils of “demodularization,” and the perverse incentives of “shareholder capitalism,” whereby basic safety concerns have repeatedly been sacrificed at the altar of greed. It’s also a devastating takedown of a company that once represented the apex of civilian aviation, whose dominance has been steadily eroded as it has increased its toxic ties to the U.S. military. In that sense it mirrors the decline of America as a manufacturing superpower. And finally, it shows a company displaying a complete loss of human perspective in the “man vs. machine” debate.

Here’s the crux of Travis’s analysis: “Design shortcuts” led to safety hazards. The newest version of Boeing’s 737 plane, previously known for its reliability and ease of use, became a high-tech disaster. Machines overwhelmed man. And worst of all, the aviation industry regulatory overseer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), subcontracted the safety/certification functions to Boeing itself, so there was no early warning system in place to avert the resultant tragedy.

Travis largely restricts his analysis to the 737. But his article illustrates pathologies long evident at Boeing and the FAA.

Let’s look at the last problem first: The FAA suffers from reduced funding from Congress (the Daily Beast reported that “the agency’s 2019 budget actually cut funding for the Aviation Safety Office by 1.7 percent”), and a corresponding loss of aviation expertise, as many of its top personnel have migrated to the private sector. Of course, that’s nothing new for the FAA, which has a sad history of hemorrhaging personnel since the days of the air traffic controllers’ strike/collective dismissal under Reagan (a cost control measure), as well as embracing neoliberal, supposedly market-based performance incentives that are thoroughly inappropriate for a regulatory body first and foremost responsible for flight safety.

Becoming more “industry-friendly” and starved of adequate personnel and fiscal resources to do its job properly, the FAA has therefore been forced to delegate much of its regulatory oversight and certification functions to the airline industry itself (“self-certification”) and has therefore become a case study in “regulatory capture.”

Boeing’s failures resonate with the public in a way that no complicated financial fraud possibly could. It takes a certain level of technical expertise to understand how the toxicity of a financial derivative poses dangers to an economic system; but everybody instinctively understands the tragic impact of a plane crash, like the doomed Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines 737-related accidents.

The seeds of Boeing’s destruction arguably were planted well before the 737-related mishaps. The warning signs were already evident in the 787 Dreamliner program a decade ago, which even today continues to be characterized by repeated engine design flaws and cost overruns. In a Harvard Business Review article, Professors Gary Pisano and Willy Shih first highlightedthe perils of Boeing’s embrace of “demodularization”: “[T]he shift from aluminum alloys to carbon-fiber-composite materials changed things. The old modular design rules could not fully account for stress transmission and loading at the system level—something that Boeing did not get right initially.”

Boeing couldn’t get it right because the company had shifted large chunks of its design and manufacturing facilities to disparate parts around the globe—too far apart geographically, in fact, to monitor everything properly: “As a result it encountered problems assembling the pieces (such as the horizontal stabilizer from Alenia Aeronautica in Italy and the wing box from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan). Significant redesign and rework were required, and the program suffered major delays,” write Pisano and Shih.

With one part of the plane being manufactured in Italy, and another in Japan, management was unable to assess quickly the resultant design and engineering flaws before launch. Even after the initial launch delays were addressed, Dreamliner’s history has been characterized by repeated recallsand cost overruns.

Offshoring, of course, is nothing new. In our brave new world of globalized capitalism, multinational corporations like Boeing are constantly on the lookout for global labor arbitrage possibilities, which have the happy effect of curbing unit labor costs, fattening profit margins, and thereby juicing the company stock price (an increasingly important part of management compensation, irrespective of the underlying performance of the company itself in the real world). These are all part and parcel of the pathologies inherent in America’s increasingly financialized “shareholder capitalism” (see herefor more details).

But Boeing’s problems extend beyond that. It is a company that has historically been very successful in the highly competitive civil aviation market since the 747 jumbo jet (“the Queen of the skies”) first dominated some 50 years ago. The 21st century has been less kind to the company, however, as its failures have been increasingly exacerbated by its growing, and increasingly toxic, ties to the U.S. defense industry.

These links began in the late 1990s when the U.S. Department of Defense helped to engineer a merger of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, the latter an important supplier of combat aircraft to the United States. Far from being the “largest, strongest, broadest, most admired aerospace corporation in the world,” as promised at the time of the merger by John McDonnell, chairman of McDonnell Douglas, the corrupting practices of the Pentagon soon began to infect the newly combined entity. In particular, the 787’s outsourcing strategy turned out to be a fiasco, which even then-Boeing CEO Jim Albaugh was forced to concede in a Seattle Times report.

But the Seattle Times also exposed that the rot took hold well before the 787 debacle, citing an internal Boeing Report, written in 2001 by Dr. L.J. Hart-Smith, a mere five years after the merger was consummated. Hart-Smith described the disastrous economic effects of excessive outsourcing that began to afflict Boeing almost immediately, especially as its ties to the military expanded. These problems are elaborated hereby longtime defense analysts Franklin “Chuck” Spinney and Pierre Sprey:

The so-called spin-offs offs from Defense spending can transmit the corrupting effects of the politically motivated, cost-plus economics of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex (MICC) into the larger economy[.] The MICC not only subsidizes wasteful cost growth in the Pentagon, its activities infect the overall economy by soaking up scarce investment and human capital; corrupting the practices of science and engineering; distorting research content on a huge scale; while providing incentives for inefficient production and management practices, (e.g. excessive outsourcing for political reasons – aka the political engineering practices explained hereand here), not to mention the politicizing of industrial management.

Contact with the Pentagon often signals death for a civilian company because of the incentives inherent in its “cost-plus” contracts, along with the geographic disbursement of manufacturing facilities to as many parts of the country as possible in order to maximize congressional political support for increasingly expensive military boondoggles—what Spinney and Sprey term “political engineering.” These two factors bias corporate practices toward inflating costs and therefore foster waste and diminish safety. By contrast, in a traditional civilian model, profit margins are best secured by reducing costs as much as possible in order to maximize the bottom line.

As Boeing’s ties to the military increased, so too did its shoddy corporate practices. The 787 Dreamliner is still plagued with production problems, and there is little sign that Boeing has rectified them. The company has failed to reintegrate basic manufacturing and R&D to correct the original problems highlighted by Shih and Pisano (quite the contrary, as the company is increasingly shifting production to China in order to safeguard its market share there). Just this month, the New York Times has reported that “the [Charleston, South Carolina-based] factory, which makes the 787 Dreamliner, has been plagued by shoddy production and weak oversight that have threatened to compromise safety.” A former quality manager, John Barnett, a whistleblower who worked at Boeing for nearly three decades, damningly suggested to the New York Times: “I haven’t seen a plane out of Charleston yet that I’d put my name on saying it’s safe and airworthy.” Recall that Boeing originally moved some of its operations to the “right to work” state of South Carolina to undermine the strength of its unionized workforce in the state of Washington, which has had an adverse effect on the overall quality of its products.

That’s on top of the recent 737 debacle, where Boeing evidently missed safety risks in the design of the newer model, “like an anti-stall system that played a role in both crashes,” as the same New York Times article noted.But the genesis of the problem of the 737, a plane Gregory Travis (a pilot of 30 years’ standing and a software engineer of 40 years’ experience) writeswas once known for its “reliability” and relative technological “simplicity,” lay in the fact that “market and technological forces pushed the 737 into ever-larger versions with increasing electronic and mechanical complexity.”

The main problem, notes Travis, was the engine redesign. The engine’s size was increased to enhance the 737’s overall energy efficiency, but it became too large to be accommodated in its traditional spot on the plane. The expansion ultimately necessitated extending the engine up and well in front of the wing. That changed the relationship between engine’s “thrust” anditscenter of gravity, which, in the words of Travis, caused the 737 “to ‘pitch up,’ or raise its nose… a bit too much for comfort on power application as well as at already-high angles of attack. It violated that most ancient of aviation canons and probably violated the certification criteria of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.”

“Angle of attack,” as Travis defines, refers to the angle between the wing and the relative wind blowing over it. The more a pilot lifts the nose of the airplane, the higher the angle of attack and the more the lift of the wing increases—until you reach the stall limit angle of attack, when suddenly the wing stops lifting entirely (because the relative wind’s smooth airflow over the wing has separated catastrophically from the wing surface). That’s why an airplane that adds extra “pitch up” force to the nose when the pilot commands just a slight increase in angle of attack (that is, in nose up angle) is so dangerously unstable—because it can lead to a fatal stall situation that likely was the cause of the two crashes.

Egregious violations to basic aerodynamic principles should have induced the FAA to step in and force a redesign of the Boeing’s latest incarnation of the 737 (the so-called “Max 8”) in order to minimize the safety risk. But there were two problems:

  1. Making the required hardware modifications would have been hugely expensive (to the point where Boeing would have had to build an entirely new aircraft, rather than merely modifying a popular, hitherto safe and easy-to-fly airplane)
  2. As noted above, the FAA was already overwhelmed, and consequently was beginning to allow Boeing to “self-certify” its own planes.

Rather than design a whole new plane the “solution” to point 1 was the installation of yet more software, in this case the “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System,” or MCAS, for short. The goal, writes Travis, was to enable the computers to push “the nose of the plane down when the system thinks the plane might exceed its angle-of-attack limits; it does so to avoid an aerodynamic stall. Boeing put MCAS into the 737 Max because the larger engines and their placement make a stall more likely in a 737 Max than in previous 737 models.” Unfortunately, the MCAS software “solution” was a totally incompetent, unsafe Band-Aid that used the computer to counter (or perhaps more correctly, to mask) the airplane’s dangerous tendency to lift the nose too much and get the stall situation where the computer takes over from the pilot to resolve a problem that initially stemmed from a hardware issue.

As far as point 2 goes, as Travis describes it:

As airplanes became more complex and the gulf between what the FAA could pay and what an aircraft manufacturer could pay grew larger, more and more of those engineers migrated from the public to the private sector. Soon the FAA had no in-house ability to determine if a particular airplane’s design and manufacture were safe. So the FAA said to the airplane manufacturers, “Why don’t you just have your people tell us if your designs are safe’”

You can immediately spot the parallels between the 2008 global financial crisis and the Boeing crashes. Much like the FAA with Boeing, in 2008, our global monetary authorities, regulators and ratings agencies were starved of adequate resources and expertise to properly scrutinize the activities of Wall Street’s financial engineers. They were forced to accept at face value the banks’ mathematically unsound “value at risk” models to justify the soundness and fundamental safety of their newly created derivatives on the lines that the underlying asset pricing followed a “normal” distribution pattern. Of course, these derivatives did no such thing, because the price history was inadequate to establish a truly normal pattern; therefore, the math on which risk management was predicated turned out to be flawed with catastrophic consequences, as former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan ultimately acknowledged.

Similarly, the MCAS software “solution” that was supposed to “fix” the engineering problem of the new 737 failed, because it was based on a flawed paradigm: no computer software can fundamentally repudiate the principles of aerodynamics. And in both cases, the regulatory capture and inadequate financial resources accorded to the authority precluded it from stepping in before disaster struck. Hence, the FAA did not once highlight the risks of the new anti-stall system when it certified the “new and improved” 737 Max 8 as airworthy some two years ago, according to the Washington Post. This is because Boeing had already attested to the plane’s fundamental fly-worthiness (much as Wall Street’s models minimized the possibility of a “black swan” discontinuity in the financial markets, which induced the relevant compliance bodies to green light them).

Consequently, both Boeing and a multitude of financial institutions post-2008 suffered “crashes.” Note as well in each case how increasing complexity becomes the enemy of effective regulation and, ultimately, safety considerations themselves. In both cases, they ignored what Travis and others call the KISS principle: “Keep it simple, stupid.”

There’s another interesting dimension to this Boeing calamity, which points to the perpetual “man vs. machine” debate that has been the story of capitalism since the days of the Luddites. Contrary to popular characterization, the Luddites were not simply technophobes, beating back the forces of progress. They were highly skilled artisans, protesting the fact that their livelihood was being displaced by automation, imposed on and displacing them like expendable commodities with virtually no consultation from the business owners themselves.

Likewise, in the new Max 8 plane, the new MCAS software was introduced without letting the pilots know about its main features. The key characteristic of MCAS is thatit is activated without the pilots’ input. Worse still, according to the Verge, “both jets that crashed lacked safety features that could have provided crucial information to the crew because they were sold as options by Boeing, according to the New York Times.”

A huge failing of MCAS is that it effectively eliminates the human “feel” dimension to flying, as Travis illustrates:

In the old days, when cables connected the pilot’s controls to the flying surfaces, you had to pull up, hard, if the airplane was trimmed to descend. You had to push, hard, if the airplane was trimmed to ascend. With computer oversight there is a loss of natural sense in the controls. In the 737 Max, there is no real ‘natural feel’…

There is only an artificial feel, a feeling that the computer wants the pilots to feel. And sometimes, it doesn’t feel so great.

When the flight computer trims the airplane to descend, because the MCAS system thinks it’s about to stall, a set of motors and jacks push the pilot’s control columns forward. It turns out that the flight management computer can put a lot of force into that column—indeed, so much force that a human pilot can quickly become exhausted trying to pull the column back, trying to tell the computer that this really, really should not be happening.(Emphasis added.)

The MCAS computer software taxes a pilot beyond his physical capacities. And while it is true that in modern long haul commercial flying, computers do most of the actual flying, redundancy is normally built into the system to enable human beings to override the software if the pilot spots a problem. What distinguishes the newly incorporated MCAS system is that it denies the pilot’s ultimate sovereignty or, as the author starkly puts it: “It denies the pilots the ability to respond to what’s before their own eyes.”

Travis ultimately evokes Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” to indicate something of the scale of the technological dysfunction created here by Boeing: “Raise the nose, HAL.” “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

The key difference between the two situations is that in Kubrick’s masterpiece, HAL, the computer, was finally overridden by human action when circumstances necessitated and was therefore deactivatedbefore more disaster could strike. The issue implicit in Travis’ imagery in regard to the Max 8 is that we may have taken this technophilia too far in the direction of computers to the point where today’s modern day “HAL” cannot be controlled by the pilot.

Boeing’s pathologies therefore illustrate the perils of innovation for innovation’s sake. But the company is symptomatic of a much bigger problem: We lionize the “progress” of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs, even as they produce self-driving cars (which cause fatal accidents), multifunctional smart phones (that threaten our privacy), high-tech drones (that bring airports to a standstill), or any kind of extreme automation in the workplace that degrades the role of human beings.

The crashes of the Boeing 737 jets ultimately reflect a hubristic faith in the power of the machine, a factor that is creating its own kind of dystopian 21st-century nightmare worthy of a Philip K. Dick novel. We view technology not as a man-made invention designed to help us, but as an autonomously fixed condition that bears little relation to human behavior. This lack of integration means that complexity overwhelms us, rather than enhances our quality of life. It commodifies us. Labor is just a cost input to be replaced, if possible, by a robot; it is no longer viewed as a source of demand. The same unthinking mentality that sees regulators as a dispensable encumbrance who clutter the operations of “the free market”; or safety is an optional feature that mustn’t be allowed to interfere with the bottom line; where the needs of employees are subsidiary to the profits of shareholders and management; and the military is prioritized over the needs of the civilian economy.

Boeing sadly embodies so much of our current economic and social dysfunction with predictably deadly consequences. But it is not alone or unique by any stretch of the imagination.

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  1. Stadist

    Where are ‘free markets’, ‘creative destruction’ and other market mechanisms when you need them? Oh, I forgot we live in near-dystopia where responsibility is only for the serfs.

    Modern human ‘roadkills’ seem to be completely justified in the march of progress (actually profits, but I try to keep to the virtuous narrative).

    1. Jeff

      Airplane development has enormous barriers to entry, hence few real competitiors .

      The real issue is the lack of political backbone to hold accountable those who do harm. As usual, follow the money to see why that is

  2. kimyo

    any takers? my wager: a team of boeing attorneys is already hard at work drafting the terms of their bailout agreement.

      1. Monty

        They should televise Trump vs. Xi in an 11 Dimensional Chess match.

        I know who I would have my money on.

  3. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

    One counterpoint here…I currently work with engineering teams on multiple continents on complex, multi billion dollar projects. We have consultants on four continents. You can do it, but the challenge is how you manage them. The reality is that I see more and more engineers with poor management and people skills, and this is why it becomes difficult to manage these teams. As systems become more complex and engineers require more technical skill, but increasingly lack the corresponding necessary parallel improvement in interpersonal skills, in my admittedly anecdotal experience.

    When one works on multi-continent teams, it also takes a special dedication: you are working on a 24 hour cycle, regularly doing midnight/2am conference calls, working on your vacation days, and to be frank, not having a family around becomes a necessity. A lot of the guys I work with live with their family on the weekends and fly into a work location during the week and don’t see them. Six years ago I was working in San Francisco for a guy that lived in Georgia on the weekend and flew across the country on Monday morning to make the weekly commute.It just takes this level of intensity and commitment to the vision of your project to do it.

    Why is not more being talked about with respect to the failures of mid-level management at Boeing, for failing to coordinate geographically dispersed design teams due to poor management of teams, and the underlying missing skill sets?

    Perhaps some references on Boeing management culture and workplace culture are useful.

    1. kimyo

      just as with VW, this is an upper management fraud through and through.

      management to engineering: build this magic thing.
      engineering to management: what you have specified is not physically possible to deliver.
      management: okay, cool. we’ll just lie and say you built the magic thing anyway.

    2. Sev

      Add to that numerous government agencies, departments, politicians who have no skin in the game and just interested in creating of the hard work’s illusion

    3. Stadist

      Obviously I do not know how Boeing is doing and managing their development work, but I do have personal experience from predominately project-based development processes. My take is that splitting everything to neat little projects can erode the deeper understanding of technologies and systems as the ‘projectization’ of work easily leads to more shuffling of the workers. So in a weird twist, better management through project-work can make the overrall management of the already implemented systems and technologies worse off. But this is just my opinion.

      As a disclaimer I view projectization of work as a tool to impose strict mechanical performance metering (project target achievement, project completed in schedule, budget etc) to all kinds of work. But I don’t think comparisons are always fair. Then bonuses are based on these perfomance indicators, which at worst encourages short term project target chasing at the cost of long term performance.

    4. a different chris

      >that lived in Georgia on the weekend and flew across the country on Monday morning to make the weekly commute.It just takes this level of intensity and commitment to the vision of your project to do it.

      You talk “intensity and commitment”. I see a tired person very likely to make mistakes. Because a human only has so much to give before they crash, and if much of that is devoted to flying across the US weekly and living away from your family, then that’s not going to doing your job.

      Can’t you see somebody at Boeing, technically accomplished and maybe respected enough to change or call halt on the 737 Max re-work, being too tired to actually see that it was necessary? Nominally with the skill set, but too tired to see the forest for the trees he is harvesting?

      1. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

        Well, I don’t necessarily disagree, but you obviously have never worked in the Bay Area…

  4. AbateMagicThinking But Not Money

    Re. Mil. Spec. bleed:

    Let us call it “Ejector Seat Capitalism”. The pilots of corporations always have one* manufactured by Limited Liability inc. They rarely fail.

    My latest mantra: Boeing, Boeing, going: gone?


    * Usually complete with golden parachute.

  5. cuibono

    Given that THE STOCK has gone from 25$ to 380$ in the past 10 years, one would never know that this company is in such desperate trouble.

    ah market discovery magic

  6. dcrane

    Grr….. just had to complete a captcha and give some corporation more data on what fire hydrants look like, in order to submit a comment just now. Hasn’t happened before.

    …and I ended up in moderation anyway! :-)

    1. pretzelattack

      i get cars, traffic lights, and traffic signs, to improve self driving cars i suppose.

    2. Phacops

      I usually fail the first two attempts deliberately to introduce success as false random picks. Don’t know if that makes any difference? But I’d rather have vision systems unable to know precisely what they are seeing.

    3. The Rev Kev

      Would be nice if they gave you a Captcha where you had to identify the democrat sell-outs with portraits of the democrat Presidential candidates.

    4. shtove

      Captcha usually throws in one or two obscure or miniature images you can’t figure out. And why is it always dismal US streetscapes?

    5. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry, this has to be CloudFlare. It’s not something NC implemented.

      I’ll check with my tech guys and see if there is anything we can do about this.

      1. dcrane

        I’ve twice tried to repost the comment, which was eaten. I took a few pics of the screen that comes up…it does mention Cloudflare. It also suggests that if I want to avoid the problem I should scan my local network/devices for malware.

      2. dcrane

        Here’s a bit more info that might be relevant: The comment I tried to post was composed in my mail editor and pasted in to the NC window (to avoid losing it). The system has allowed me to make multiple small comments just now without triggering the captcha page. Maybe it is the copy-paste aspect that matters.

  7. Alex V

    This is not intended to detract from the overall premise of the argument, with which I agree, but to reinforce that accurate background information is important if these problems are to be solved.

    -Travis is not a “veteran commercial pilot”. He has only flown general aviation aircraft in his 30 years of experience. The closest he has come is time in a 757 simulator.

    -Moving the engines up and closer to the center of gravity improves the pitch response characteristics of an aircraft due to changes in thrust. The issue with the 737 MAX design is due to increased lift from the engine nacelles, which results in undesired pitch characteristics when power is increased similar to the engines having been moved down.

    -“no computer software can fundamentally repudiate the principles of aerodynamics”. This is in many ways a bad faith argument, as software is frequently used in aircraft to exceed the limitations of the basic aerodynamic design. Airbus uses fly-by-wire for this very purpose in its commercial aircraft – the horizontal and vertical stabilisers are for example undersized in relation to more conventional designs to reduce drag, but function safely because computer software can compensate for this aerodynamic compromise. A large number of military aircraft would fundamentally not be able to fly without computer software, due to their inherently unstable aerodynamic design.

    -The 737 MAX still has mechanical connections from the controls to the flying surfaces. The piece implies this is not the case. There are however computerised systems that augment the force and feel in the system, but do not replace the direct connection. The aircraft can still be safely flown without these augmentation systems.

    -“What distinguishes the newly incorporated MCAS system is that it denies the pilot’s ultimate sovereignty or, as the author starkly puts it: “It denies the pilots the ability to respond to what’s before their own eyes.” The MACS system can be overridden by the pilots using either the trim switches on the control column or on the throttle console. The issue in these incidents is that this ability was not documented or communicated, effectively resulting in the same outcome. But stating that it was physically impossible is not true.

    1. Doggrotter

      As has been pointed out elsewhere unstable military aircraft “agile fighters”, have a lot worse things to worry about. And the pilot has an ejector seat but sadly not much in the way of life expectancy

      1. Alex V

        Which is why I included the Airbus example. The author’s statement is too absolute in relation to the reality of modern commercial aircraft. Software and automatic hardware solutions for aerodynamic compromises have been used in aircraft for decades. The 737 had a yaw damper at its introduction in 1967, as another example.

        1. TimH

          The B25 Mitchell has a shimmy damper back in the early 1940s. Without it, the airframe would vibrate apart at certain low airspeeds, like landing.

    2. 737 Pilot

      ^^^^^^^^^^ This

      There is no denying that Boeing, the FAA, and the airlines all had a hand in the multiple failures that led to these accidents. They need to be held accountable.

      That being said, overstating the 737 design issues does not lend any credibility to these arguments.

      The 737 MAX is not an inherently unstable or dangerous aircraft.

      It is not fly-by-wire. There is a physical connection from the cockpit controls to the primary control surfaces.

      Every automation input can be easily opposed by the pilot.

      Artificial feel has been a component of commercial aircraft design for decades. That will not change.

      Flight augmentation systems (including MCAS), when properly designed and executed, make for safer aircraft.

      The MCAS design was flawed. The overall MAX design is not.

      MCAS can and will be fixed.

      Yes, Boeing, the FAA, and the airlines have been far too beholden to the wrong interests and have impaired what has otherwise been a very safe mode of travel.

      These are not mutually exclusive concepts.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        MCAS can and will be fixed.

        Then why didn’t they fix it before a whole bunch of people were killed? Why didn’t they train pilots on its proper use?

        I’m sure this can be fixed but the whole point of the article is that with Boeing and any other number of corporations producing any number of goods and services, these things are not fixed because they cost money and perverse corporate incentives mean dangers will be overlooked deliberately in order for someone in the C suite to get their big bonus at the end of the year. Dead plebes is just a cost of doing business, and if you hire the right lawyers it won’t cost that much.

        You are glossing over that problem as if it will simply fix itself, maybe through some further self-certification.

      2. Alex V

        I believe the issues with the original Travis piece also arise from the venue where it was published and in which section. IEEE Spectrum is basically an electrical engineering trade publication, so only tangentially related to the subjects of software and aviation, and it was under an opinion heading. Feels like an editor not deeply familiar with the topic ran something on a trending story submitted by a reader while assuming it had been fact checked.

        I agree with all of the moral and ethical criticisms – I just don’t want to see that case torn apart by technical errors. If Travis were ever presented as an expert witness, he would be destroyed by the defense.

        1. Darius

          I’m just a layman but it appears that the engine changes should have been enough to push the MAX out of a common type rating. And layering on more software doesn’t fix that.

          Moving the engines forward would be fine if it made sense on its own merits. But cramming them there because was the only way to make them fit doesn’t inspire confidence. And it should have triggered the need for recertification.

          1. Alex V

            This in itself was not a sufficiently large enough change in the aircraft’s flying characteristics and interface to warrant a completely new type rating.

            It’s entirely not uncommon for airlines and manufacturers to issue significant changes to aircraft operating procedures after upgrades, fixes or modifications for a specific aircraft model without requiring a new type rating, only new training.

            The failure here was in software, testing, and training execution.

            1. Darius

              Well. Maybe there needs to be. Especially given the growing fragility introduced into the system by neoliberalism.

              1. Alex V

                The scale of the stakes are of course significantly different but do you feel someone should need to get a new drivers license each time they want to drive a different model of car instead of perhaps reading the manual?

                1. Jeff

                  If driver’s test exams screened for attention span, ease of distraction and general idiocy, we’d all be better off

                2. Anon

                  Now that brings up an important idea. I recently rented a regular sized cargo van (Sprinter-type vehicle) and was amazed at how that vehicle affected my driving. It had visibility characteristics that made my driving very poor. The simple fact that the instrument panel was different made speed verification difficult. Stopping distance was radically different, as well.

                  Since inattention due to both self (texting?) and vehicle induced elements is the cause of most crashes, maybe re-testing in a new vehicle isn’t a bad idea. Maybe a speed restriction until enough time for vehicle familiarity to seep into better driver skills.

        2. JerryDenim

          “I agree with all of the moral and ethical criticisms – I just don’t want to see that case torn apart by technical errors. If Travis were ever presented as an expert witness, he would be destroyed by the defense.”

          Yep. I second that opinion. He gets the big picture right, but when he attempts to dig down into jet aerodynamics and systems it’s pretty apparent he’s a hobby flyer out of his depth. He makes some very questionable claims for a guy assuming the mantle of an aviation expert. The 737 Max is really an atavistic Jurassic Jet with some new poorly designed bells and whistles. It’s main fault is being too old, not too new, and both of the recent crashes could have been avoided fairly easily. The Max should have never been designed, certified and delivered the way it was, but then again, Lion Air 610 should have never left the ground with its maintenance logbook and Ethiopian 302 would have never crashed had the pilots followed procedures and simply reduced their thrust/speed settings to something less than Vmo at any point before they turned the automatic Stabilizer trim back on. All of this was in direct contravention of post-Lion Air crash procedures. So there’s that….

          Anyone who’s ever experienced a series of multiple cascading failures inside a modern glass cockpit will tell you what is needed isn’t more information, but less information and for a way to sort out the most important and pressing information from the total junk and less pressing issues. Despite all the hoopla about the optional safety features Boeing withheld from Ethiopian, I don’t know one airline pilot that read the crash report that believes an extra red blinking light indicating AOA vane #1 had failed would have saved Ethiopian 302. That crew had at least a half dozen indications that they had plenty of power and plenty of speed
          to avoid stalling and they really should slow down. They were stressed, they were overwhelmed and they were fixated. Sure maybe right after takeoff when they were flying slow maybe an AOA vane fail indication could have helped settle their nerves about the erroneous stall warning regime and the stick shaker, but after they were at a safe altitude traveling over 300 knots, one more warning system would have told them nothing the high speed clacker, the airspeed tape and the thrust settings had not already made clear. You’re flying. The jet works. You got a trim problem. Slow down!! Reduce thrust!! But yet they didn’t.

          Yes, yes, everyone, Boeing has been absolutely terrible and I hope they get what is coming to them, but there is blame to go around, not just for neo-liberal, post-austerity regulators and aircraft companies, but for cheap airlines who want to run a shoddy maintenance operation and for cheap airlines who want to hire cheap, zero-experience pilots and then not train them properly. People who collect an airline paycheck and call themselves pilots who can’t fly without all of the automation working may want to take a look in the mirror as well. We are not blameless or powerless as a group. If you know how to hand fly but hardly ever do, then quit being lazy and get back to it. If you’ve never been confident in your ability to shoot a raw-data approach with no automation then perhaps you ask for the opportunity the next time you’re in recurrent training. You could also start slow on the line by picking one automated system, either autothrust or autopilot, then shut it off on a nice day when you have a sharp experienced crew member on the flight deck. You can work your way up towards full manual flight from there. If doing such a thing would never be allowed at your airline then start lobbying management to make a change. It would benefit everyone including the airline so it’s hardly subversive employee behavior.

          1. Thuto

            While I have utmost respect for your expertise and contribution, I see you’ve dispensed with prefacing your comments on this topic with “I don’t mean to be a Boeing apologist” (I paraphrase) and are now openly adopting a tone and a posture that shifts much of the blame away from Boeing. Suggesting that these two crashes were easily preventable (dare I suggest I detect a hint of “this would never have happened with experienced US pilots at the controls” hubristic undertone here) hardly helps move the discussion forward in a productive way. In stark contrast to your nonchalance at dismissing these accidents as easily preventable, to say nothing of taking an unjustified swipe at “cheap airlines and cheap, zero experience pilots”, regulators around the world have taken the (possibly) unprecedented step of grounding this aircraft as a result of said accidents.

            My ex-girlfriend, with whom i’m still very close, is a highly experienced long haul commercial pilot and is not so dismissive of the role of the automation in these accidents as you seem to be, and has taken the view that sweeping, authoritative statements about the cause/s of the Ethiopian crash are perhaps best postponed to the period after the release of the final report (but then again she’s with South African Airways so I’m not sure her views count considering she might fall in the category of “cheap, zero experience pilots” flying for “cheap airlines” in the third world). I’ve flown Ethiopian many times, it’s a well run airline with a good safety record that hardly merits a bad faith swipe such as the one you take at it in your comment. While your expertise may allow you to comment on this subject with more authority than us laymen, may I suggest maintaining good faith in doing so, lest your acknowledgements of Boeing’s mistakes start appearing as a thinly laid veneer on your attempts to absolve them of culpability.

            1. JerryDenim

              I’ve always enjoyed the content and the readership of Naked Capitalism because it’s a site that avoids binary thinking and the team sports mentality of picking a side of an argument based on emotions or identity and then mindlessly promoting that narrative regardless of facts and data that may emerge which call that narrative into question. I also like that this site and its readership (mostly) embraces nuance and complex information while staying curious.

              I’m sorry to hear that you think I cannot possibly hold the twin sentiments of ‘Boeing has been absolutely terrible and I hope they get what is coming to them’ while also believing Ethiopian airlines shares some culpability for the crash of flight 302, but I promise you I’m not lying.

              You accuse me of making a “bad faith swipe at Ethiopian” but what did I misrepresent? Were both the pilots not zero-hour cadet hires that received 100% of their training and experience from Ethiopian Airlines?
              As far as reserving judgment goes, I did. I never made one comment here or anywhere about the Ethiopian’s skills or conduct until I read their Transport Ministry’s crash report. I’m sorry but there’s no mitigating circumstances that excuses flying into the ground at 500 knots with takeoff power set unless you’ve had your arms lashed to your side or you’ve been incapacitated. If you really had the “utmost respect for my expertise and contributions” you wouldn’t take offense at my suggestion the Ethiopian’s performance left room for improvement. I can’t really imagine the final report offering any new information that invalidates the earlier findings so I feel ok with my statements thus far. I don’t mean to pick on Ethiopian Airlines, by developing economy standards they do seem to be a fairly well run airline, and my goodness they are light years ahead of Lion Air but Ethiopian Airlines also had the benefit of not being the first airline to find out about the Max MCAS trim system after one of their jets crashed, sadly they seemed to not heed the lessons from the earlier 737 Max crash.

              When I talk of cheap airlines, I mean all of them. US airlines included. Never heard of an Airline CFO or COO that thought they should spend more on pilot training. I don’t recall anything in my remarks that let US airlines or US pilots off the hook. If you’ve read more than one or two of my comments here on this topic as your comment seems to suggest, I would hope you would realize I have been anything but dismissive of the role automation played in the recent Boeing twin tragedies. I’ve actually claimed it’s an overarching theme of both 737 Max crashes alongside neoliberal austerity driven deregulation and corporate crapification to borrow some site terminology. Instead of laying all the blame for industry wide trends at the feet of Boeing 737 Max engineering team I’ve choosen to spread the blame to broader rogue’s gallery while focusing primarily on the role heavy automation dependency plays in deskilling the pilot ranks. If that hurts your feelings I’m sorry, I am not being biased, racist, or engaging in some form of American exceptionalism, etc. I am only describing what I see firsthand and I don’t feel the need to apologize for my honest, unbiased professional opinion. I’ve also never suggested Boeing isn’t culpable in these recent twin tragedies, merely there’s more to the story and more blame to be shared. If my remarks have become progressively more pointed it’s because I tire of having to tiptoe around certain obvious facts while defending myself against charges of bias and bigotry from those who aren’t well qualified to weigh in on the finer points of professional piloting and automation management best practices. I am careful to conduct all of my arguments in “good faith” as you say. Are you doing the same?

              1. Thuto

                Like you, I’m attracted to NC because of the quality of its posts and a readership that, while not always in agreement with each other (or indeed with the intended thrusts of the posts’ authors) nonetheless remain careful not to let their “tiring of tiptoeing around certain obvious facts” become a justification for presenting their side of the argument with bad faith swipes at others. As regards having to defend yourself against charges of bigotry and bias while presenting the facts, you can trust that I generally ensure that I maintain my sensibilities at a level above that which can be offended by a comment on the internet. I hope you understand that this obviates the need to launch retaliatory charges of bigotry and bias in your direction.

                That said, the interpretation of my comment above as charging you with such is entirely within your purview, I however need to make it clear that I also see no need to apologize for laying out what I came away with after reading your comment. While you’re allowed to formulate an initial view based on reading the preliminary report, it’s when you preclude the possibility that others might see it prudent to wait on the findings of the final report to formulate their (final) views on this where, imo, you engage in overreach, especially when said others include experts (accident investigors, regulators, other pilots) in the field whose expertise may be on par with yours. If you’re a long time reader of NC you’ll know that unquestioning deference to the views of experts is discouraged here and I for one will certainly take your views on board, along with the views of similarly credentialed others whose take may differ from yours in certain respects. This should lay to rest charges that i’m “mindlessly promoting a particular narrative” and tethered to a “binary” way of thinking on this subject. My appreciation for nuance, contrary to your assertion, demands that I allow the evolution of my admittedly layman view on the causes of these tragedies be guided by information from more than one expert source. I will let you have the last word on this if you so wish.

                1. JerryDenim

                  I’m a bit disappointed to see you double down on your baseless “bad faith” accusation. I challenged you to point out where I was being wrong, misleading or unfair and again you have nothing. You have mischaracterized and straw-manned my arguments and engaged in a de facto ad hominem attack by insinuating my clearly explained and well-reasoned professional opinions were motivated by some unfair bias while providing absolutely no substance to back up your claims. Your problem with my assertions don’t seem to have any material basis, you just seem offended that I would offer an opinion of my own concerning other pilots’ actions or inactions based on the initial accident report. Perhaps you’re under the impression that accident reports are like media accounts. The first hot takes are wildly inaccurate and sometimes wrong, the story is constantly evolving until the final story that emerges isn’t much at all like the initial one. That’s not how accident reports work. Unless they’ve been doctored, which I doubt the Ethiopian DFDR and CVR have been since they were shipped to France for analysis, CVRs and DFDRs don’t lie. Final crash reports don’t change from the initial reports, they just contain more context and information plus some opinions regarding primary and secondary contributing factors from the investigators. Again you misrepresent my views when you claim I have ‘preclude(ed) the possibility that others might see it prudent to wait on the findings of the final report to formulate their (final) views’. I have never claimed anyone, including your ex-girlfriend is wrong to withhold judgment until the final accident report is available, I just stated I personally felt confident drawing some conclusions from the abundant data in the crash report. Withholding judgement is not the same thing as exonerating pilots or claiming that wrong actions and procedures were actually acceptable because the pilots in question tragically perished or were dealt a tough hand. Boeing created a big nasty trap for both of the ill-fated Max crews, and yes, passing judgment on the dead is rightly perceived as harsh, but unfortunately that can be part of the deal when you take responsibility for hundreds of lives and agree to pilot a jet that records your every move.

                  I don’t mind non-pilots disputing my opinions but I do think my opinions should be argued against fairly. As a person from a non-aviation background you should have a logical, fact based argument based on more than just your feelings or your “HO” before you claim my arguments are unfair, biased etc. Otherwise your “HO” is neither humble nor is it informed. It’s just a guy with strong personal feelings arguing with the logical, informed opinion of an experienced professional.

              2. Ahimsa

                I’ve also never suggested Boeing isn’t culpable in these recent twin tragedies, merely there’s more to the story and more blame to be shared.

                I, for one, have much appreciated your take on the Boeing story.

          2. upstater

            Sounds like an argument for very strong labor unions at the airlines, Boeing and all the crapified contractors. Individuals have legitimate fears of reprisal, whereas a collective can withstand if organized on an industry wide basis.

            Take on these companies and shut them down!

            1. JerryDenim

              Yes!! I’ve made the same type of remarks here. The best defense the flying public has against rapacious neoliberal airline management that doesn’t even know when their demands cross big, bold red safety lines, is well trained and empowered pilots and mechanics backed by a union that can stand up to management. I can’t imagine the Captain of Lion Air 610 didn’t feel queasy about taking that particular 737 Max airborne with the logbook write-up history it had. If he would have felt secure in his employment refusing that airplane for the unresolved mantainance issues surrounding the airspeed indications and AOA vane that day, all onboard might still be alive. No matter how fantastic and infallible our automation technology becomes in the future I will never ride on an autonomous jet because there’s no one up front to say no to management when they want to launch an unsafe flight.

        3. Walt

          “If Travis were ever presented as an expert witness, he would be destroyed by the defense.”

          Thanks Alex. Auerback’s last excerpt concerning force on “the pilot’s control columns” shows Travis’ misunderstanding of the trim system and the stabiliser jack screw.

          Travis doesn’t understand the limits of his knowledge. This isn’t just his problem though. Famously, the issue has roots in antiquity: None of us understand how little we know. Extending your juridical example, I like to think that due process can mitigate our ignorance.

      3. Glen

        Boeing screwed up. Let’s hope SOMEBODY at Boeing gets fired.

        Otherwise it’s more of the same tomorrow.

        1. Michah

          Somebody will get fired and that’s precisely why the systematic failures will not be corrected.
          Perhaps fixing these problems is beyond our capacity.
          The “just-in-time” economy hides many similar breakdowns where risk assessments are deprioritized for the sake of achieving targets. Many are lurking and waiting for that fatal accident to occur, for example bridges, dams..

    3. a different chris

      This one paragraph is literally illogical. Can you re-write it to say what you were really trying to say? This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism, it’s just unreadable and I’d like to read it.

      -“no computer software can fundamentally repudiate the principles of aerodynamics”. This is in many ways a bad faith argument,
      no it is a simple statement of fact?
      as software is frequently used in aircraft to exceed the limitations of the basic aerodynamic design.
      You can’t seriously say repudiating physics is possible with software, so what are you saying? Are you trying to say is that more advanced control systems can somehow bring in some second-level effects, so it’s no longer “basic”?
      Airbus uses fly-by-wire for this very purpose
      Purpose not clear, again you can’t undo basic physics
      in its commercial aircraft – the horizontal and vertical stabilisers are for example undersized in relation to more conventional designs to reduce drag, but function safely because computer software can compensate
      How? The air it works against doesn’t know there is some brilliant algorithm, it just sees a small flap to push against
      for this aerodynamic compromise. A large number of military aircraft would fundamentally not be able to fly without computer software, due to their inherently unstable aerodynamic design.
      Yes we know they are called “unstable” – but that is a well-bent technical term for the fact that they need to move or die, like a shark. If they were unstable in the pure physical sense of the term they would simply crash.

      1. Alex V

        What I’m trying to say is that properly designed computers can fly better than humans, allowing for aircraft designs that could not be reliably flown by human brain power alone. Auerbach implies this is not true with his own poorly worded statement, by oversimplifying “the principles of aerodynamics”.

        To take my Airbus example; smaller surfaces are used reduce drag. This however has the effect of making the aircraft marginally less stable (less likely to follow a given trajectory if no new input is given), enough so that it would be mentally taxing for a human to keep the plane flying straight, but not impossible. Hence a computer is used to assume this workload.

        Inherently unstable aircraft are essentially designed to not fly straight, from an aerodynamic standpoint. The computer makes them fly straight by continuously correcting for this tendency, faster than any human ever could. Stable aircraft are designed to fly straight until told not to, so that you could release the control, even though no computer is involved in the entire control system. Auerbach essentially argues the first case can’t be true throughout his piece.

        1. baldski

          “Why is it nobody is saying anything about Boeing taking the counter weight out of the tail section which made the center of gravity change 10 feet forward of the engine intakes at take off. With the engines already set well forward of the wings, at a stall even at altitude it would be almost impossible to recover. This is why in the old 737 center of gravity was center of wing at take off and could recover from a stall.”

          I found the above on another web site. Anything to it?

        2. Michah

          However, commercial airplanes are meant to be stable enough so that they can be flown by humans, whereas military aircraft are designed to achieve maximal performance such that fly-by-wire is not possible because the aircraft are designed with inherent instability.
          Surely Airbus planes can be flown manually if the hapless situation arises.


      Why favorite, the 737 pilots were certified in 1967. can fly the 737 MAX. It’s essentially the same plane….

      1. The Rev Kev

        Anybody that has driven a 1967 Ford car can drive a 2019 Ford car. If you have a driver’s license you can drive both. But there is a world’s difference between the two. And just as a reminder, here is a page showing the controls of a 1967 Ford Mustang-

        It was a WYSIWYG setup as in what-you-see-is-what-you-get. There were no undocumented features in that ’67 Mustang like it wanting to steer hard to the left when it thought that you had gone too far to the right and you having to fight for control of the steering wheel.

    5. dcrane

      The writer is also incorrect when he suggests that the planes crashed because they stalled. If anything, the opposite is true – they crashed when the plane incorrectly sensed an approach to stall (from a bad sensor), and put the plane into an active dive (trimmed the aircraft hard nose-down) from which the pilots were unable to extricate themselves in time.

  8. Wellstone’s Ghost

    I grew up in Seattle and many family friends were Boeing engineers, executives and factory floor workers. This whole debacle is infuriating, sad and, worst of all, totally avoidable. When Boeing was merged(taken over) by McDonnell-Douglas and then moved it’s headquarters to Chicago, everyone new the game had changed forever. When they opened production in South Carolina(virulently anti/union)!it was game over.
    Good luck Boeing, it was nice knowledge no you.

    1. Jeff

      What do Union workers/non Union workers have to do with organizational dysfunction and greed of company leadership?

      1. Anon

        Everything. The Union/nonUnion dynamic is part of the attempt of organizations to lower costs (wages) while improving personal remuneration (bonuses) in the C-suite. (In Boeing’s case, passengers be-damned.)

      2. J7915

        Having buffer between management, FAA?
        Few mechanics are people ‘people’, in my experience. That is why mechanics are mechanics: don’t have to constantly negotiate with others who’se interests are far from keeping things running.

  9. JerryDenim

    Airbus makes the 737 Max and the MCAS system look like the Flintones jet. Despite some rumors flying around the Internet, all of the primary control surfaces in the Max are connected by heavy wires and augmented by hydraulic systems. There’s feel aplenty compared to other true ‘fly-by-wire’ jets. Instead of a big old-fashioned control yoke with a trim switch, Airbus jets have a little sidestick that is physically connected to absolutely nothing, just some electric wires going to various computers. Airbus jets don’t even have trim switches for the pilots to use, the jet always trims for you whether you like it or not, and not just in a few unusual scenarios like the Max MCAS. The manual trim wheel on an Airbus, unlike a Boeing, doesn’t move inflight so when the stabilizer trim is operating the pilot doesn’t even know it is working unless they scan a tiny little 10 point font, 2 digit value on an ECAM page. Same story for the auto thrust but the thrust values are more prominently displayed. Once the thrust levers are placed in the cruise detents with auto thrust engaged, thrust can go from idle to near full power without the levers ever moving never alerting the pilot to the changes. Airbus also has stall protection modes which command thrust AND pitch changes which cannot be overridden by the pilots with normal inputs. Nothing on the Max was that automated. The MCAS system on the 737 utilizing a sole AOA vane for stall recognition and secret trim functions was an incredibly reckless, stupid, unforgivable and probably criminal design decision by Boeing, but the MCAS trim functions were very easy to override by hitting the stab trim cutout switches.

    Airliners are being built with heavy automation that is hard to override for the same reason Boeing outsources and buys back their stock, it gooses profits, not for the manufacturers but for their customers. Well trained and experienced pilots are in short supply, especially in the booming economies of the developing world. They can be trained, but it takes a massive investment of time and money, so purchasing what is supposed to be an idiot-proof plane is the shortcut. The problem is automation creates its own set of problems. There’s an entire generation of pilots that don’t really know how to fly an airplane now, they’ve been denied the opportunity. Automation when used extensively and routinely by experienced pilots who do know how to fly, will forget how to fly, their skills simply atrophy. Inevitably, automated systems break or pilots become confused as to what the automation is doing, and when that happens increasingly we see needless disasters borne out of a lack of basic piloting skill.

    It’s a self licking ice cream cone of doom as Lambert might say, the product of airline management greed and short-sightedness and the aircraft manufacturers willingness to cater to those greedy, foolish whims.

    Here’s a similar 737 Max AoA vane incident in an A320, but more scary to me as a pilot because instead of heavy wires connected to the elevator with a hydraulic assist that actually give pilots a chance to take manual control back from aircraft computers, these pilots were fighting a computer with essentially an Atari joystick that was being overridden by the computer. Notice these Lufthannsa pilots immediately take as much manual control of the aircraft as it will give them at the first sign of trouble, then they fight it for more (no attempts to engage autopilot) and they take the supremely important action of managing the aircraft’s speed and energy state even as they work to correct the nose down diving of the airplane. Very important point that last one.

    NY Times. Pre-Ethiopian Crash investigation story concerning automation pitfalls and weak pilot hand flying skills-

    1. dcrane

      Great post, and thanks for the link to the Avherald A321 example. That’s a good one since it shows how things can go to custard even with three AoA sensors, which comes back to your point that pilots need to know how to fly the aircraft with as little automation as possible.

      So far nobody has reported any examples of failed AoA 737-MAX “runaway” incidents that were successfully managed by two-pilot crews. There have been three cases (two on Lion, one on Ethiopian), and the one plane that survived had a third pilot present who was not flying who was free to observe and guess that the trim itself was the problem. This 2/2 crash rate suggests that there are a lot of pilots out there who would have become disoriented enough to crash in this situation.

      1. JerryDenim

        I don’t disagree the 737 Max was needlessly dangerous and unairworthy. I don’t disagree an AOA vane 1 failure triggering an erroneous MCAS nose down trim, trim runaway emergency would be a very stressful and fraught situation requiring immediate and correct action from the crew. I don’t disagree that a lot of crews flying today would screw it up.

        But just because the media hasn’t gotten wind of any other 737 Max trim runaways that ended without tragedy doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. The FAA’s “ASAP” (safety incident) reporting program is completely anonymous and strictly confidential. I can see no reason why the FAA or the US airlines that fly the Max would want to pour anymore gas on the current PR dumpster fire by revealing other instances of 737 Max runaway trim incidents, even if they were handled safely. I think the best we can say currently is we don’t know, but there is always a lot the media and the public don’t know.

        There was a reporter that wrote a piece for the Atlantic maybe (?) after the Lion Air crash where he did an FOI request for all FAA ASAP reports on the Max and he found several minor MCAS trim anomaly incidents reported by US pilots. I linked it here once but have no idea when that was. Basically there’s a lot we don’t know, but it’s a dangerous emergency that is still quite survivable by following procedures and utilizing basic hand flying skills.

        1. dcrane

          Yes, it is still early. Maybe we will find out about related cases when the final reports are published.

          The cases discussed in the news media from that anonymous NASA reporting system didn’t appear to be directly related to MCAS. For example, at least two of them (if I recall correctly) occurred with the autopilot on, and as you know MCAS isn’t supposed to operate then.

  10. Carla

    While reading Auerback’s analysis, I couldn’t get Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” out of my mind. A quick search showed that a revival just opened on Broadway. It would have been in rehearsal when the Ethiopian Air crash occurred. As if working on that play weren’t emotionally wrenching enough in and of itself …

  11. Prodigalson

    I still vote Monsanto as exhibit “A” for the poster child for capitalisms true essence on display. Boeing still seems a greedy and incompetent piker compared to the active malice from Monsanto’s activities.

    Boeing is Bush to Monsanto’s Cheney as it were.

  12. oaf

    MCAS: Acronym for *Mass Casualties*….
    …Its not a bug, its a feature!!!

    RE: Alex V….Thanks for including your clarification, with which I largely agree, including the bit that clarifies Travis’ background.

  13. James E Keenan

    Auerback describes Boeing as “… a company that once represented the apex of civilian aviation, whose dominance has been steadily eroded as it has increased its toxic ties to the U.S. military.”

    This is somewhat historically misleading. Boeing had deep ties to the U.S. military (think: B-17, B-29, B-47, B-52) long before it introduced the 707 (the plane with which it challenged Douglas’s dominance in civilian aviation).

  14. Cat Burglar

    I recommend reading the L.J. Hart-Smith study of return on net assets as a way to fail a manufacturing business. Outsourcing ultimately outsources everything, including profits. In the end, he contended, when a complete aircraft would be wheeled up, Boeing would be able to do nothing except put a sticker on it.

    Through family I know that during the 787 debacle, Boeing asked older retired engineers if they would come back to sort out the mess, and they took one look at it and refused.

    The evil effect of defense contracting on production that was outlined by Seymour Melman, also has consequences for non-defense businesses. A small custom backpack maker I know has had big problems financing ultra-light fabric purchases because the producers will only sell in the huge amounts required by military contractors — he had to sell his car to get pack fabric. This is what you get from a de facto industrial policy of militarization.

  15. The Rev Kev

    If I am reading Marshall Auerback correctly, one of the main source of the problems here is that neoliberalism infected Boeing and turned it into an “optimized” version of itself where its main purpose was to generate cash for shareholders and goose their own stocks. “Chainsaw Al” would have been very proud of them. Not long ago Boeing raised their quarterly dividend to 20% and they were planning to do a buyback plan for over $20 billion. That would have given Boeing management very hefty pay-rises indeed. Well that is off the table now so some of those billions can be used to compensate airlines for loss of profits while those 737s are parked on tarmacs around the world as well as the families of all those dead crew and passengers. Maybe the rest they can put into quality control.
    The old Boeing could have told them the secret sauce. Build solid, reliable affordable airlines and sit back and watch the money come in. Skimping in aircraft manufacture leads to crashes and when that happens, you cannot simply write it off as a cost of doing business. This is not like that time a Ford manager decided that it was cheaper to have some of their customers burn to death in a faultily-designed Ford car and pay out the families than to fix the design of the car itself. Airliners transport hundreds of people at a time and can do on average 46 trips a week ( which is a lot of passengers. And those passengers can do their own boycott of a dangerous aircraft and that is exactly what the 737 MAX is at the moment. A dangerous craft.
    While reading Auerback’s article I reflected that it could be worse. How? Back in the 60s Boeing did a lot of work for NASA and built things like the Lunar Orbiters, the Mariner 10 space probe, the first stage of the Saturn V rockets as well as the battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicles used in the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. Just sit back and imagine the history of NASA if what Boeing does now was the same way that they did things back during the space program. That whole idea will get your stomach churning.

  16. chuck roast

    Charles V famously said, “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.” There are times, however, when only German can capture the true spirit of the time. With that in mind, and being entirely illiterate in German, I would venture that Auerbach gestalts the weltanschauung.

    That being said, here is an appropriate tune for time…

  17. Samuel Conner

    It’s my understanding that modern combat aircraft are dynamically unstable by intention — it makes them more maneuverable — and are kept flying by continuous computer intervention in the orientation of the control surfaces to counteract the instabilities. I wonder whether success of this philosophy in the military aircraft market (which, however, can tolerate a much higher accident rate than would ever be acceptable in the civilian aircraft market) may have helped to smooth the way for the relaxation of the prior sine qua non of inherent aerodynamic stability in civilian aircraft.

    1. Darius

      That may work for fighter jets. But the best commercial planes are forgiving and tend toward flight stability. Not the opposite with correction by software. Airliners also don’t need to be maneuverable like fighter planes, which come with ejector seats and whose pilots have parachutes.

    2. Synoia

      Yes the F35 is such an immediate success, and economical to purchase, while having a projected life to 2077.

      That is, yes pigs do fly, and live for ever.

  18. Norb

    The failure of the capitalist system is that once a level of technical competence is reached, there is no mechanism in the system to consolidate that knowledge for social benefit on a collective scale. That seems to be the main argument posed by the Luddites; the social disruption caused by the introduction of new technology needs to be taken into account. The social disruption posed by the new technology needs to outweigh that which it is replacing. As a system, capitalism fails miserably. Capitalist’s lie to ensure profits. That is what they do.

    In this respect, socialist and communist oriented countries have the advantage. Technology, once mastered, can be put to use for the collective good. This is why Iran, China, and Russia, must be destroyed now, and not be allowed to develop any further. People power, supported by a governmental body not undermined by excessive corruption would be able to change the world. The coordination of People Power is the key to National survival- and a strong and competent defensive strategy.

    The steady rise of China and Russian resurgence in world affairs reflect these forces. An Imperialist US only makes matters worse. The US has failed in its leadership role. Mastering and containing technology is the only hope for humanity- not more free-for-all.

    Technology, and the production of necessary goods needs to be discussed and coordinated. Seeing who is open minded and wishing to talk, and who wants to dictate terms is very informative.

    Cheating and obfuscation cannot be the motivating force of your society.

    1. Norb

      It also needs mentioning that an elite should make up the government, but that political elite must be separated from the elite merchants and industrialists that also make up the society. Unregulated Capitalism leads to the merger of the two power centers. Each entity can no longer keep the other honest and on the right path. There becomes only one path. For the majority, that situation leads to suffering and injustice.

      The Chinese concept of the Heavenly Mandate makes a lot of sense. Loose the Mandate and the leadership will be changed.

      Failed Democracy says the same thing. Ignore the Will of the People, and the people will rise against you.

        1. Norb

          Yes I am. Sorry for not articulating the point very well.

          The point being that the persistence of inequality is the death of your society. Inequality is always increasing or decreasing based on the choices a society makes on how it is organized and how the efforts of its citizens are rewarded. If you have resources and technological knowhow, allowing inequality to flourish is only possible by rewarding greed. Inequality is increasing in the US with no end in sight.

          The decisions being made on both the governmental and corporate levels in the US reflect this insatiable desire for profit to the point where sane public policy becomes impossible.

          The US will not be able to compete or influence other countries, except by force, if this situation persists or deepens. The dynamism of the country will be drained away.

          Crashing Boeing planes due to engineering shortcuts and compromises are a symptom of this decline. Instead of being viewed as a grave warning, it will be rationalized away as a minor blip to be remedied. However, the inequality and the motivations that drive it forward will remain intact.

          Socialist countries, striving to lessen inequality and improve the lives of their citizens will be in a better position to face the future. The public policies they adopt attempt to do this directly. The indirect method adopted by the US is proving to be a failure. Not for some- but for most.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            What is so socialist about Russia or Iran nowadays? Or even China, other than its being ruled by a Church of Marx-Maoist Theocracy?

            1. Norb

              One indicator is how the poor are treated. Is poverty increasing or decreasing. In all three countries, Russia, Iran, and China, the poverty levels are shrinking. While here in the US, things are going in the opposite direction. Also, the idea of state ownership is completely different, and in my view, more sane in the above countries. The State retains majority control over key industries so they can’t be sold off to private concerns. All the countries have an elite sector that makes more money and is better off than the majority, but that wealth is kept in the country and the mass of the citizens see a rising standard of living. Just think what could be accomplished if the US and other Western allies didn’t spend billions trying to undermine their societies. In the US, if you are not in on the looting , you are seen as a looser. How does that work in the long run?

              Sure, every society must tap into the individual vitality of their citizens. But what national project has the US undertaken in the last 3 decades that doesn’t entail war and conquest to motivate their citizens? Private business concerns don’t count since by definition the benefits of those actions accrue to the owners, not the society at large.

              Looting the US itself becomes more appealing as the external world figures out how to protect themselves from rapacious US actions. The distressing fact is that looting can go on for a very long time.

              I’m a working stiff, so have very little time to research and educate myself on these fascinating issues, and by design, this is getting more difficult by the day. However, one interesting strategy I found to cut through the obfuscation, is whatever the MSM or elite narrative espouses, begin looking at the situation from the opposite view and see what fits better. On many topics, the opposite tends to reflect the truth more accurately.

              The church of Marx-Maoist-Ali-Putinist Theocracy doesn’t sound to bad to me. Where should I worship?- fake Christians busy looting the planet? No thanks.

              If you are interested, Ramin Mazaheri has a series of essays he has written for the Creanville Post concerning Iranian socialism. Very interesting and from an Iranian point of view, not Western capitalists trying to discredit another country.

  19. Susan the other`

    “This lack of integration means that complexity overwhelms us, rather than enhances our quality of life.” The economics of it all breaks down. A lack of integration could be looked at as incomplete. Just another externalized cost. Incomplete productivity. That makes sense because “productivity” is such an artful dodger. A complete productivity, if it ever existed, would be in balance with its environment. These aren’t engineering failures, or even management failures. They are mindset failures. Excellence is in the details and the details are expensive. But when it comes to business models, profit is too important for excellence. So productivity is just a short term goal. I hate the word “productivity”. It’s an oxymoron. We don’t look at a healthy little ecosystem and think my my how very productive it is. We think instead of how harmonious it is. And the reason for that loveliness is that instead of short term competition, an ecosystem practices long term diversification. When we diversify, we really don’t diversify. We just break down an enterprise into it’s less unwieldy parts and start over with the same game plan. But when nature diversifies, it really diversifies and becomes more and more complex. But the true artfulness of nature is in that very complexity. Because it is complete at every level, it seems to be simplicity itself. Long live nature. I hope long enough for us idiots to learn something.

    1. Math is Your Friend

      “We don’t look at a healthy little ecosystem and think my my how very productive it is. We think instead of how harmonious it is. And the reason for that loveliness is that instead of short term competition, an ecosystem practices long term diversification.”


      The organisms in that ecosystem got the way they are because their ancestors successfully climbed over – or ate – the bodies of their competitors. It may seem ‘harmonious’ if you don’t look closely at what i really happening, but it’s a complex bunch of interlocking feedback loops where everyone has found someone else to eat, and where they have, so far, managed to have all of their own kind wiped out. That’s largely because the failures are now plant food, leaving us only the winners (so far) to be objects of contemplation… a classic example of survivor bias in observations.

      If you want to call wandering blindly down every available mutation path currently available to see who dies first ‘practising diversification’ I suspect you will muddy your understanding of the logic, or rather absence of logic, that drives evolution.

      Productivity is not just a short term goal. In the longer term, it is the enabling ‘fuel’ that provides the resources that enable survival in the face of competition. Ecosystems are not ‘integrated’ in a top down organized sense – they are the sum of many independent forces or tendencies pushing in every possible direction, sufficiently in balance for now that change is not rapid and we can incorrectly assign balance or harmony to processes that are simply too long in terms of the human time scale to be readily apparent to casual observation over a period of mere decades, or sometimes millenia.

      Then someone comes up with a really interesting mutation, and it all goes back to chaos for a few thousand or million years, until competion sorts out the survivors from the rest.

  20. Marshall Auerback

    Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I’ve spoken to a number of aviation experts (including 2 cited in this article), who suggested that my information was correct. BUT even if your description is more accurate, I think the general point still stands.

    1. Susan the other`

      yes, I agree with your assessment. Boeing is an example of the failure of our current model of capitalism. I totally agree.

    2. Susan the other`

      and another thing you pointed out is a military mentality. if we could only find a way to use the focused, efficient military for finely-tuned projects based on state of the art science and not indulge in manufacturing such a lunatic variety of weapons. Our capitalism is a combination of militarism and mercantilism. It just uses “capital” which is nothing more than our own sovereign money. I wish we could just retool the military to think differently because they do have a certain ethic that keeps them going. It’s just in the wrong direction. Hence our capitalist culture is off on the wrong track as the engine that pushes us is the MIC.

      1. Norb

        A big mistake was changing the name of the Department of War to the Department of Defense. A rational argument is made for the change, but the subtile evil present in our society belies all mundane explanations. It’s a continuation of the relentless conditioning we are all subject to in order to support US aggression and imperalism. Point out the dangers, and you are called a unpatriotic crank.

        The military you are describing is a patriotic force that protects and ensures the survival of your Nation. We are in crackup time in the US because the Military is in a contradictory position, which I believe explains the wave of tragic military suicides plaguing our military today. The reality of war and the real mission of the US military does not match the notion of protecting our Nation. Sane people don’t want to kill people for corporate profits. It is another tragedy of our times.

        Strong adversaries are the only hope for a livable future. Whatever system people adopt to live under, a corrupt military is a dead giveaway that you are on the road to ruin. In the end, dedication, sacrifice, and commitment to your Nation make all the difference. Wars of aggression and choice become problematic because they run contrary to these noble values. It can only be termed mercenary not patriotic.

        Whom can we call the true patriots of our country?

    1. Arizona Slim

      And Ralph Nader’s grand niece. She was on the Ethiopian Airways flight.

      I can’t help thinking that a sequel to Unsafe at Any Speed is in the works .

      1. The Rev Kev

        I suggested one in a comment a while back. It was “Unsafe at Any Altitude”. Oddly enough, when I made that comment, this was just before it came out that Ralph Nader had family aboard that were killed.

  21. Jeremy Grimm

    Boeing’s handling of the Army’s Future Combat System (FCS), with help from SAIC, during the Bush years should not be forgotten. Instead of combat vehicles the Army received piles of ambitious systems architectures delivered as huge files of documents, and systems architecture diagrams that no one I knew could make any sense out of. Some of the subsystem designs are said to have continued after the main program ended: “The US Army decided effectively to terminate the manned vehicle program at that time, while spinning out other capabilities developed under the FCS program. Development on many of the sub-programs continued after that point.” [] I’m not sure what FCS related combat systems were ever fielded.

    For several years the soldiers fighting in Iraq were being equipped with a lightly armored ground vehicle [light to support deployment by air transport]. I read that units were welding scrap to the sides and underside of many of these vehicles because they were so vulnerable to enemy fire and some of the early IEDs. This was not directly Boeing’s fault but the non-delivery of FCS and the FCS lock on Army funding lines did play a role.

    1. nothing but the truth

      ” systems architecture diagrams that no one I knew could make any sense out of”

      this is a problem with the software “engineering” sector. It seems to be self referential like other sectors pampered by investors. (economics also comes to mind, but economists typically are closer to centers of power, as in they provide cover to political types).

      i make a living in this sector, and every year, the level of fluff, PR, BS and other such fine post modern skills keeps rising. The silly CON valley, the VCs and the IPO market keeps rewarding it.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Software architectures were intended as a way to either automate the production of software modules or move their implementation to teams of software designers in areas with much lower cost software engineers and programmers. I remember attending training sessions at a company that designed software architecture tools but retained at most a skeleton staff of the engineers that designed the software architecture tools I was learning about

    2. The Rev Kev

      ‘I read that units were welding scrap to the sides and underside of many of these vehicles because they were so vulnerable to enemy fire and some of the early IEDs.’

      Absolutely correct. The troops nicknamed it “Hillbilly armor” and when Donald Rumsfeld made a visit to Iraq, they called him on it when he was talking to a large group of them. I’m pretty sure that this was when he came out with the line “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time” which sounds like, when translated, as “suck it up, bitches”.

      1. Math is Your Friend

        “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time”

        This may have appeared trite and/or dismissive, but there’s a fairly good chance it was neither.

        In fact, this is a recurring theme in understanding how various wars have unfolded throughout history. In many cases in world war two, countries kept on producing inferior weapons when they had the working versions of something much better, because they couldn’t afford the time to retool and retrain workers, with the resulting interruption in supplies of weapons and equipment.

        The US air force had the wrong jet fighters in Korea. The British had the wrong fleet submarines in WW1. The French had the wrong rifles for the Franco-Prussian war, and the wrong type of troops at Agincourt. The Canadians started WW1 with absolutely the wrong infantry rifle, and the Polish cavalry had the wrong weapons and tactics when Hitler invaded.

        There are always delays or mistakes, or things that didn’t work out the way you expected or you find yourself facing a type of enemy that is not what you planned for.

        In Iraq, the US had weapons and doctrines specifically evolved for decades the fight a war against a mechanized army with heavy air support and lots of chemical weapons. Priority of design and procurement were for anti-air, anti-armour, and NBC resistant vehicles. There wasn’t supposed to be issues about identifying the enemy – if they were advancing in T72s and T80s with BMPs and BTRs, with heavy rocket barrages, you knew who they were.

        Instead, there was the wrong country (no bases, prestocked supplies, detailed familiarity with terrain) against the wrong enemy (specialists trained in the wrong languages, no decades of planning and analysis, etc), using the wrong weapons (being able to detect the enemy’s aircraft doesn’t work if they don’t have any), in the wrong climate, with the wrong environmental problems (sand??? this thing is supposed to deal well with snow!), and so on.

        No one has yet figured out a reliable way to avoid the problem… so you try to understand it and cope with it as best you can, while trying to plan how to mitigate it when it does arise, in part through remembering that it does happen… hence the opening mantra, that has showed up in more books I’ve read than I can count.

  22. Synoia

    I believe this understated

    Boeing Might Represent the Greatest Indictment of 21st-Century Capitalism

    This may be more correct

    Boeing Might Represent the Greatest Example of 21st-Century Crapitalism

    1. allan

      or Boeing Might Represent the Greatest 21st-Century Indictment of Reinventing Government.

      Or, to paraphrase the former Deputy Administrator and then Administrator of the FAA
      at the time of the 737 MAX certification,

      … He is proud that he was able to bring his passion for collaboration to his work at the FAA to improve the regulatory relationship between government and the private sector, resulting in “an unprecedented level of transparency and information sharing between government, industry and labor that was first introduced in the late 1990s.” …

      You can’t make a light regulatory touch omelette without breaking a few airframes.

  23. VietnamVet

    The 737 Max crashes and the death of 346 people would have been prevented if money had been spent on design, testing, training and oversight of the changes to the flight critical systems of the airliner. Instead the money went to Boeing stockholders and C-suite executives. This is criminal corruption. This is now pervasive throughout the West. The only way to stop it is to enforce the law and jail corporate criminals. The only way out of our current entrapment is peace, cooperation, equality and the rule of law.

  24. TG

    Indeed, well said.

    But also: Boeing has become too big to fail. The Neoliberals demand that anti-trust laws not be enforced, because larger conglomerates will have economies of scale and they are anyhow paying me to say that. But: we can’t allow Boeing to fail. There are no other US civilian airline manufacturers. It doesn’t matter how bad Boeing is, it WILL continue to prosper, no matter how much in direct or indirect government subsidies it takes.

    Neoliberals like to talk about capitalism and free markets and competition, but they lie (as always). Ultimately, neoliberalism is feudalism.

    1. Caret

      Good comment. Check Boeing’s stock price, in light of their recent earnings expectations, and the two 737 MAX crashes with 346 humans killed.

      TBTF. For now

  25. John

    Interesting and wide ranging discussion. Nothing I read makes me eager to climb aboard a 737 MAX in particular and a Boeing aircraft in general. Lines 5&6 of Act I of Much Ado About Nothing has Leonato questioning the messenger: “How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?” The reply: “But few of any sort and none of name?” The C-Suite escapes the consequences of their actions yet again.

    The pursuit of profit to the exclusion of all other considerations is immoral and reprehensible. For the malign results to escape retribution is criminal.

  26. Denis Drew

    Two recent Air Disasters episodes portray very similar computer v. pilot stories:

    Free Fall
    Investigators are racing to find out what could make a state-of-the-art, automated plane go into repeated nosedives.

    Deadly Inclination
    S12, Ep7
    Discover why a DC-9 flew 1,000 feet too low on its final approach and why its pilot blew his one shot to avert disaster.

  27. Scott1

    Trim controls are flight controls, especially for powerful “heavies”.
    Boeing bombers had the trim wheel in the center of the engine control
    group between the left Captain seat & First officer seat.
    I believe the trim wheel on the DC 6 was in the same position.

    Where the trim controls are in the cockpit may well make a difference.

    “A Good Wing is a Good thing, tried & true & nothing new.” -RSD
    There may well be a lot to recommend aft of wing engine placement
    on Heavies. Then you can create the best wing for the body, fuselage.
    The loaded weight goes forward of the heavy engines. Simplifies loaded
    CG, center of gravity computations.

    Instruction manuals would benefit from the input of poets.
    Possibly I ought say “mature poets” since they are more likely
    to want to be understood.

    I first suspected “Trim” as the crash factor because my friend crashed
    in a Convair 440 after take off when trim was Up for Down & Down
    for Up rigged. I’ve heard it called most commonly “cross rigged”.
    The flight lasted 40 seconds.

    How cross rigging happens is really unknown to me & would be
    a Chief Mechanic failure in maintenance when done.

    Does not sound to me as if the compromises made to put
    big engines on the 737 Max made for a bad wing for all expected
    flight envelopes. I mean from take off to cruise to landing.
    The manual was badly written.
    There was not enough actual flight testing.
    Trim control feedback was insufficient.
    Trim controls were not properly placed.


  28. James

    The world has changed since the 747 was built. The 787 would never have been built if Boeing had not partnered with customer countries on work share. Hart-Smith’s points were fine observations of the past, but did little to deal with the future challenges of scale and reliability.

    Over the last 40 years we have seen substantial improvements in safety.

    While people within the system are making mistakes, the amazing thing about Boeing as a company and FAA as a regulator is it still follows key standards to maintain system safety. Why did Boeing see delays in the 787? Because when it detected errors in the design, it spent the time to fix the errors.

    We do not know the end story yet on MCAS. Probably worth waiting.

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