Boeing’s apologies ring hollow as decades of consolidation bite back


Boeing is a vast and complicated company. It holds a disproportionate level of military contracts, is in effect now, with control of Embraer, responsible for some 95% of aircraft manufacturing on the twin American continents, and has a distorted leverage over the regulatory organisation, that is meant to ensure what it manufactures is safe.

In his farewell address on 17 January 1961 – the President of the time who had served two terms, Dwight D Eisenhower, warned Americans and the world of the “Military Industrial complex”. It was largely seen as a shocking statement at the time. A general who commanded the US Forces in Europe to victory in WW2, a sitting President telling us all that the industry and military organisations in the US were, and would continue, to press endlessly for more and more to sell and buy, with convincing reasons to do so, and that they would never stop until just one of them was utterly dominant. He thought it applied only to the military, but it spread far further and wider than he could possibly conceive at the time.

He wasn’t wrong and everyone knew it. But nobody heard him. Yet what he warned us all of has now come to pass. In 1961 there were dozens more commercial and military manufacturers, airlines, systems and components suppliers than there are now. There are barely three major military manufacturers who have everything from aircraft to tanks and warships in their vast corporate groupings. But Boeing is the biggest.

When it comes to civil aviation there is in effect nobody but Boeing in the US. And the 737 max disasters have suddenly, accidentally highlighted a festering cancer inside the way civil aviation – and military – is run.

So far this year, Boeing, has had the USAF refuse to take delivery of the hideously delayed and over budget KC-46 Tanker, based on the 767 airframe. Why? because the aircraft being delivered were full of rubbish and abandoned tools from the manufacturing process. Where was the quality control?

NASA is looking at extended delays on Boeing’s launch vehicles, which it wants billions of dollars more for to complete development, already way over budget.

And when the 737 Max failed Boeing, which in effect had self-certified it, in a perfectly legal way permitted in law by the FAA, sat and did nothing insisting it was safe until the public outcry and even the current President, got involved and forced its hand.

In the last few days Boeing’s non-apologetic apology tour has come in for much criticism. Leaks from pilots about the 56 minute iPad conversion course for the 737-Max from the 737-800, facts about lack of documentation, all seem to have fallen on PR spun ears. They say the words, but they carry on as they were.

In the meantime, the US Congress is pushing for the FAA to take a more distanced and nuanced approach to Boeing and regulation. Guess who has been fighting a rear guard action against that, with all their lobbying might and political donations? And their lobbying might is vast, allegedly some 100 plus professionals are paid by the company to lobby Congress alone.

You see they know they’ve slipped up, and they’ve revealed the way things are done, and we all know it’s not the best way – it’s not the right way. And our lives are at risk. The question is where does the cost of safety and your life reach a point where it’s acceptable to say “we’ve spent enough now, its good enough”?

Is it right that the company who makes the aircraft tells you it’s good enough and uses its legally acquired abilities to sign off its own potentially flawed product, using the FAA’s seal of approval?

If it’s not – and in and ideal world it shouldn’t be – who is going to train the engineers and technicians, fund them and operate them via the FAA, keep them independent and impartial, when there is now no alternate commercial aircraft manufacturer to draw that specialism from?

The endless consolidation, rising costs and demands have forced out everyone but Boeing from the commercial aircraft market. The current situation is just part of the price all of us have to pay.  Some of us have paid with our lives.

Boeing is unassailable. It’s a vital element in the US economy. Nobody will be able to break it up because no political party has the guts to do so, too many have component manufacturers for civil and military programmes in their districts, too many take donations. Their lobbying efforts and disinformation against  anyone who stands up will ensure they don’t get heard and its place in the system is so deeply entrenched, any attempt to remove it would likely kill the patient. Boeing knows it, and that’s why nothing fundamental will change.