The Infuriating Sundance Documentary Exposing Boeing’s Deadly 737 MAX Cover-Up

·6 min read
Karen Ducey/Reuters
Karen Ducey/Reuters

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is a story about how a revered company compromised its reputation in five short months—except, however, that Rory Kennedy’s documentary argues that this process actually began years earlier, when Boeing, once the standard-bearer for airline safety, efficiency, reliability and performance, was purchased in 1997 by McDonnell Douglas. That merger initiated Boeing’s fundamental transformation into a manufacturer that cared less about quality control than its stock price. The ramifications of that makeover were plain to see in October 2018 and March 2019, when two Boeing 737 Max aircrafts fell from the sky, killing more than 300 people—all because of malfeasance deliberately perpetrated by Boeing itself.

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Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is rightly described by The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor as “a horrible, horrible story,” and Boeing’s culpability is so obvious and inexcusable that, at the eventual Senate hearings over the two crashes, even Ted Cruz was incensed over its egregiousness. Premiering on Jan. 21 at the Sundance Film Festival (before making its Netflix debut on Feb. 18), the film is a study of corporate greed and the permanent damage it can beget, especially when the culprit in question is a company that provides what amounts to a public utility. Featuring interviews with journalists, pilots, analysts, experts (including Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger) and Oregon congressman Peter A. DeFazio, who eventually spearheaded the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s inquiry into Boeing’s conduct, it serves as a cautionary tale about unchecked avarice, and the need, as Pasztor says, to always remain skeptical about whom you trust.

Kennedy’s documentary begins on Oct. 29, 2018, in Jakarta, Indonesia, when Lion Air Flight 610 unexpectedly went down, killing all 189 passengers and crew members aboard. Garima Sethi, the wife of the plane’s pilot Captain Bhavye Suneja, recalls receiving the fateful news about the crash, as well as enduring the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, when Boeing mounted a considerable PR campaign to pin the blame on her husband. Two weeks later, Boeing changed its tune, admitting that the underlying cause of the calamity was an erroneous MCAS activation. The problem was, no one had ever heard of MCAS (which stands for Maneuver Characteristics Augmentation System), and could only find mention of it in the abbreviation section of the 737 Max’s manual.

As Sethi and others soon learned, MCAS was software linked to one of the exterior angle-of-attack sensors located on the front side of the plane. Because of its larger-than-usual fuel-efficient engines, the 737 Max had a tendency to fly too vertically at high speeds, creating the potential for the engine to stall; when its trajectory became overly severe, MCAS automatically pushed the nose of the plane down so the craft could level out. In the case of Lion Air Flight 610, a faulty angle-of-attack sensor had incorrectly triggered MCAS, causing nosedive-ish behavior that the pilots couldn’t rectify in time to avert disaster. Then again, as later investigations revealed, they never had a chance, since Boeing hadn’t informed its pilots that MCAS existed, much less trained them to handle it. Thus, when MCAS initiated during Lion Air Flight 610’s early going, Suneja had no clue what was going on—he was simply confronted by a barrage of inexplicable and frenzied warnings and readouts—nor any idea how to stop it.

Even in the aftermath of that worst-case scenario, the FAA bought Boeing’s story that they’d have a swift software fix for MCAS, thereby negating any need to ground the planes. Nineteen short weeks later on March 10, 2019, that proved to be a grave mistake, as Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed in a similar manner, killing 157. Worse, this catastrophe had happened even though the pilots—following Boeing’s updated advice—had reacted to the MCAS activation by turning the system off. It was now obvious that something was dreadfully wrong, and though the FAA still refused to pull the 737 Max fleet out of the sky, President Trump unilaterally did so, thereby making it the only plane to ever be grounded by a commander-in-chief.

Boeing’s failure to properly respond to the MCAS threat is infuriating, but Downfall: The Case Against Boeing also generates outrage from its snapshot of the company’s transition from an engineer-driven outfit that made its name—and its fortune—through a commitment to teamwork, collaboration and safety, to an enterprise consumed with maximizing revenue. Kennedy’s documentary contends it was that directive which led to the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines tragedies. In an effort to retake the industry lead over their European rival Airbus, Boeing retrofitted 45-year-old 737 frames with new, heavier fuel-efficient engines that, in turn, necessitated the MCAS. Then, it lied about the significance (and power) of the MCAS to the FAA, all in order to avoid additional, costly pilot training.

The results of that deception were broadcast around the globe in 2018 and 2019, and Downfall: The Case Against Boeing complements those terrible news reports with interviews with some of the victims’ loved ones, who express shock and fury at Boeing’s callous disregard for the employees and passengers they were supposed to protect. Director Kennedy—the youngest child of the late Robert F. Kennedy—never loses sight of those who lost their lives in these two incidents, and she further honors their memory by thoroughly and lucidly censuring Boeing for its numerous calculated, unforgivable decisions, utilizing flight simulator recreations, diagrams, and graphics to lay out the heinous and heartbreaking particulars of this tale.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The families of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash of the Boeing 737 Max jet held a vigil in front of the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2019, the six-month anniversary of the Ethiopian Airlines crash. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty</div>

The families of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash of the Boeing 737 Max jet held a vigil in front of the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2019, the six-month anniversary of the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty

When DeFazio’s committee finally received Boeing documentation, it discovered that the company had known all along that MCAS was a problem, and moreover, that properly dealing with it required “greater certification and training” for pilots. In other words, they ignored a safety-critical flaw, then hid it from FAA regulators, and finally—after the crashes—tried to besmirch the pilots whom they’d kept in the dark from the get-go. Making matters worse, they had done so with the full understanding that, once the MCAS system went haywire, pilots would only have a measly 10 seconds to rectify their situation before death became guaranteed.

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is so damning that it certainly won’t help the company’s share price. It may, however, motivate air travelers, on their next trip, to seek out an Airbus.

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