Beyond safety, Boeing has much to answer for...
The Pacific Northwest loves its icons. But before Amazon…before Microsoft…before Starbucks or Nordstrom or the Space Needle…there was Boeing. She is the mother of them all. Proper, upright and kind of nerdy, she meshed perfectly with Seattle’s original Scandinavian ethos. If you worked there, you felt proud. And even if you didn’t, you were proud Boeing was around.
And then it all changed.
And I’m not talking about whether Boeing was complicit in faulty design or faulty software that may or may not have caused two 737 Max 8s to plummet helplessly to Earth. Those determinations are yet to be made.
Because in reality, Boeing’s betrayal of its own image…and of the region where it was founded…is long in the making.
(1) The Import/Export Bank. Inside the D.C. beltway, this Americaentity is better known as the “Boeing bank”. It exists to loan money to foreign entities, so they can use that money to buy American goods on credit--mostly Boeing's airplanes. (Sort of like the government loaning you money to buy a boat.) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the bank actually makes money. The Congressional Budget Office claims otherwise--that it will cost taxpayers $2 billion in a decade. In any case, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump campaigned against the bank. Both changed their minds once in office. Boeing execs and lobbyists are very convincing.
(2) The Tax Heist. Washington State governor and longshot presidential candidate Jay Inslee also changed his mind—but the opposite direction. In 2013, Inslee was cheerleader-in-chief for Boeing when he convinced the state legislature to grant the company a total of $8.7 billion in tax breaks—the largest corporate gift in U.S. history. Without it, Boeing was threatening to move production of a new model (and thousands of jobs) out of Seattle to union-free South Carolina. So, the legislature swallowed hard and agreed to set a new mark for corporate socialism—and then Boeing took the money and moved the jobs anyway. Donald Trump and Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg have become fast friends. Birds of a feather, and all that.
(3) Revolving Door. On the weapons side of Boeing’s business, the frequent movement of people between the Defense Department and the company has long been scandalous. But the current appointment of Patrick Shanahan as acting Secretary of Defense is perhaps the most galling example. Shanahan has minimal history in government--a short spell as assistant Secretary of Defense, for which he is now under investigation for improperly steering business to Boeing. In all, he has 30 year’s experience figuring out how to use taxpayer money to underwrite many of Boeing's contracts. Shanahan claims he will recuse himself from Boeing matters as the full SecDef—but how will we really know? Would we be overly cynical to doubt his sincerity?
Right now, these are background considerations in the wake of the two fatal airliner crashes, where detailed reporting has pointed the muzzle of blame directly at Boeing. (The first disclosures came from this groundbreaking work by Dominic Gates of the Seattle Times.) In short, the revolving door was in full swing--even if lives were put at risk. You see, the FAA granted Boeing itself the job of assuring the safety of the Boeing model involved in the tragedies. And it gets even worse. The New York Times reports that the planes involved were not equipped with two small safety features that might have prevented the disasters. They weren’t there because Boeing insisted on charging extra for them--on planes that already sell for more than $100 million apiece.
After going to the mattresses for several days, Boeing finally responded publicly with a largely self-congratulatory full-page ad (not coincidentally, placed in the Seattle Times). CEO Mullenburg promised that a software fix and more pilot training is coming “soon.” In addition, he lauded the company’s “amazing people”, their “deep sense of commitment”, and vowed to continue “upholding and living our values.”
The fixes better be coming. Grounded planes and cancelled orders don't make any money.
But as for promoting their upright values?
In terms Boeing might understand, that just won't fly.