Film review – Downfall: The Case Against Boeing

Another story of capitalist greed

Amnon Cohen, Haringey and Camden Socialist Party

This documentary examines the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, just five months apart in 2018 and 2019. Both crashed planes were Boeing 737 Max. The film could easily have been called “The case against capitalism”.

When Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, a new management was installed, focused entirely on maximising profits. The new management demanded more work from fewer staff, making tens of thousands of redundancies.

The corporate HQ was moved from Seattle to Chicago, in order to lessen the influence of safety-conscious engineers, and ensure the domination of the corporate moneymen.

The Boeing 737 Max was rushed out to compete with the fuel-efficient Airbus 320. Boeing’s management did not want the cost of designing a new aircraft, or certifying it with regulators. They marketed the plane to the airlines as not requiring any expensive simulator retraining of pilots.

The 737 Max involved fitting a new, fuel-efficient engine onto a 40-year-old plane. But the new engines were so large that they had to be fitted further forward and higher up to clear the ground.

This new position gave the plane a tendency to rotate upwards, where there was a risk of stalling. There was a sensor to correct this defect.

The original design had two sensors. But this was reduced to one during development.

‘Optional extra’

A small mechanical sensor could easily break, get stuck, get hit by birds or other debris. So there was an indicator lamp in the cockpit to warn the pilot the sensor was broken.

But this lamp was not standard – it was an optional extra costing $80,000. Neither of the crashed flights had the indicator installed. Boeing concealed these problems from pilots and airlines.

After the crashes, Boeing attempted to blame “poorly trained foreign pilots”, and resisted attempts to ground the 737 Max. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is supposed to ensure air safety, acted to protect Boeing and shield it from accountability.

The 737 Max was grounded only after over 50 countries banned the plane. It was recertified to fly again in November 2020.

Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion to settle a criminal conspiracy charge, ending an investigation into “knowingly and wilfully” conspiring to undermine the FAA. Boeing paid £230 million to shareholders to stop a lawsuit over lost profits.

‘Downfall: The Case Against Boeing’ and an earlier documentary, ‘Boeing 787: Broken Dreams’ warn how profit-driven corporate culture in Boeing undermines safety.

  • The documentary can be viewed on Netflix