Boeing’s travails show how protectionism rules the skies

America Letter: Some have asked whether safety was sacrificed for commercial gain

Family members hold photos of the victims of Boeing 737 Max crashes on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/Reuters

Family members hold photos of the victims of Boeing 737 Max crashes on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/Reuters

 

As the impeachment probe continued to dominate attention in Washington this week, the US Capitol was home to another important congressional inquiry.

Boeing’s embattled chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, who stepped down as chairman this year, appeared before two congressional committees, where he was questioned by lawmakers.

Tuesday’s hearing took place on the one-year anniversary of the Lion Air plane crash in Indonesia. On October 29th, 2018, a Boeing 737 plane carrying 189 people crashed into the sea, 13 minutes after leaving Jakarta airport.

Almost six months later, another Boeing 737 Max, this time operated by Ethiopian Airlines, crashed shortly after take-off from Addis Ababa, killing 157 people – including Irish aid worker Michael Ryan, whose remains were repatriated to Ireland this week.

The Ethiopian Airlines crash prompted regulators worldwide to ground the plane, but since then questions have multiplied about what the airline knew and whether it should have grounded the planes after the first crash.

Investigators have found that there was a problem with a software function called MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System), a new feature on the 737 Max designed to nudge the nose of the plane downwards in low-speed environments. The crash investigations showed that the planes nosed down at high speeds shortly after take-off as the pilots tried unsuccessfully to stop them.

It has also been revealed that a senior Boeing test pilot raised concerns about the MCAS mechanism during simulator tests in 2016, before the craft received certification. Text messages showing the pilot’s concerns have been handed over to Congress.

Stark scenes

In stark scenes in the Capitol’s committee rooms this week, victims’ families held photographs of their loved ones. “We are sorry, truly and deeply sorry,” Muilenburg said as he came under a torrent of questioning from senators. “As a husband and father, I am heartbroken by your losses.”

But for many of the victims’ families, his words were too little, too late.

The Boeing crashes have brought fresh scrutiny on the relationship between the airline, the US government and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The aircraft manufacturer, which was founded in 1916 in Seattle, is one of the United States’s most iconic brands and an important spoke in the US economy. The company is America’s largest manufacturing exporter and one of the nation’s largest private employers, with more than 150,000 employees in 50 states.

Since the grounding of the 737 Max line in March – the company’s best-selling plane – the company’s profits and share price have plummeted.

Third-quarter figures released this month showed that Boeing’s profit halved to $1.17 billion compared with the same period last year. Revenue was $20 billion lower.

US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross estimates that Boeing’s problems shaved 0.4 per cent off GDP in the second quarter.

Given the importance of the company to the US economy, some have questioned whether passenger safety was sacrificed for commercial gain.

When President Donald Trump announced the grounding of the 737 Max, it was days after other countries had done so, and followed a phone call between the president and Muilenburg in which the Boeing chief assured him the plane was safe.

Though Trump has criticised Boeing in the past – he complained about the cost of an updated Air Force One Boeing early in his presidency – he has described Muilenburg as a “friend of mine, a great guy”.

Political links

The links between Boeing and the US political establishment are also evident in its board membership. Former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was appointed to the board this year, while Caroline Kennedy, former ambassador to Japan and daughter of John F Kennedy, is also a board member.

Trump’s former defence secretary Patrick Shanahan had a long career at Boeing as head of the commercial aircraft division before joining the Pentagon.

Boeing has said it expects the 737 Max to return to service by the end of this year, hoping that its proposed software fixes will meet regulatory approval.

Boeing is likely to also come into the spotlight next year when the WTO rules on a long-running trade dispute involving US subsidies for the airline manufacturer. A parallel case taken against Airbus resulted in the Trump administration imposing tariffs on EU exports, including Irish butter and liquors, earlier this year.

The EU is likely to retaliate once the Boeing ruling is published. Though arcane, the WTO case underlines the role governments still play in propping up their aircraft manufacturers. In the aerospace sphere it is still a protectionist world.

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