April 24, 2024

Image source: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2024/jan/12/alaska-airlines-incident-shows-boeing-still-has-much-to-fix

Lately, airliners have lost parts and suffered equipment malfunctions one week after another. When a United Airlines flight from San Francisco arrived at Medford, Oregon on March 15, people on the ground saw that a fuselage panel between a wing and a landing gear had fallen off.

In the previous two weeks, seven United Airlines flights had problems in the air:

  •  A United Airlines jet landed at San Francisco with a hydraulic leak and a “small amount of smoke.”
  •  A flight took off from Australia for the U.S. but returned to Australia for an unspecified maintenance issue.
  • Similarly, a United flight returned to Chicago O’Hare airport for a maintenance issue.
  • A flight from San Francisco headed for Mexico City made an emergency landing in Los Angeles because of a hydraulics problem.
  • A jet headed to Japan from San Francisco lost a wheel during takeoff.
  • A flight from Houston to Florida made an emergency landing when an engine went up in flames midair.
  • A flight from Honolulu managed to land at San Francisco despite an engine failure mid-flight.

On June 21, 2023, a United Airlines flight left Los Angeles to cross the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, but it had to turn back after an hour when smoke appeared in the cabin. Last December, warning lights flashed that there was a loss of cabin pressure on a series of Alaska Airlines’ Boeing 737 MAX airplanes. Then in January, the “plug” panel installed in place of an exit door fell off a 737 MAX in mid-flight. The four bolts that secure the panel had never been put on.

Boeing’s corner-cutting deliveries of the 737 MAX airplane came to attention in Oct. 2018 when an Indonesian flight plunged into the Java Sea at 400 miles per hour. All 189 people on board died. The following March an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 on board. Boeing had botched software that took over the planes and forced the nose down despite all pilot attempts to correct the dive. Boeing had also skipped training for pilots on the new software.

The First Cause is Outsourcing

Outsourcing is a practice of Boeing in manufacture and of airlines in maintenance that has spread through the industry for 60 years. An outsourcing corporation carves out part of the production or service that its workers perform and signs another company to do the work. To get the contract, firms bid against each other. The company that wins the outsourcing deal cuts corners and puts the screws to its workers.

Bosses salivate over reduced costs and increased profits. In addition, by not having to tie up capital in related equipment, the outsourcer boosts its rate of return on investment – which delights shareholders and Wall Street. And the bosses threaten the remaining workforce with more outsourcing.

Boeing began to outsource big time when it designed the 747, the first “jumbo jet.” Boeing built an assembly plant on a large parcel of land in Everett, Washington and began putting together 747s in 1967. “Only the wings and the forward body sections, including the flight deck, were actually manufactured in the Boeing plant. More than 65 percent of the 747 was subcontracted to other companies.”

Boeing hollowed out further when it designed the 787 airliner. In 2009, it opened a second 787 assembly plant  in South Carolina. Jobs moved from Seattle, long a fortress of union strength at Boeing, to an anti-union state. Boeing fought recognition of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) there. In 2019 the NLRB ruled that Boeing had illegally fired five workers who supported the IAM. Also, the supply lines became global. Only five percent of the parts of the earlier 747 were foreign-made. Over 30 percent of the 787 components came from overseas.

While Boeing outsourced production and even handed off design of major portions of a new airplane, the airlines outsourced maintenance. “Starting in the 1990s, U.S. air carriers began outsourcing significant amounts of their ‘heavy maintenance’…, both within and outside the United States.” The Transport Workers Union (TWU) reported that airline in-house maintenance jobs fell from 72,211 in 2000 to 51,136 in 2016. By then, outsourced maintenance jobs were 47% of the total. United Airlines had outsourced a flat majority of its maintenance jobs. One firm that won United maintenance contracts was AAR Corp., which has shops in Illinois and Florida. Last year, United gave AAR more maintenance work. AAR Corp added work bays to its shop in anti-union Florida, but not to its Illinois location.

Almost any company that makes a mechanical, electrical, or electronic product buys parts. However, it is clear that Boeing outsourced in order to beat down wage costs. Boeing dispersed work to outside firms, opened a major facility in South Carolina, and outsourced a swelling percentage of production globally for lower wages. The airlines did much the same. Employees had mastered the tasks to be outsourced, but for the bosses, reduction of labor costs took priority.

Capitalists’ Government Does Not Keep the Skies Safe

Bourgeois democracy in the United States began to fall apart before our eyes 24 years ago. The Supreme Court stopped the ballot count and mandated Bush over Gore for president; the mass media legitimized 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump; the Senate confirmed Supreme Court justices Kavanaugh and Barrett despite their bald lies; and Trump refused to accept the 2020 election count, culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Before this time, the traditional spectrum of capitalist politics went from conservative to liberal. Among other issues, they are divided over how much the government should control businesses, industries, and markets, including labor “markets.” Bare-fanged conservatives like Milton Friedman demanded no regulation, except that courts should adjudicate and enforce contract disputes between capitalists. In 2002 then-president Bush awarded Friedman a presidential medal of honor. The citation praised his stand for “a society where men and women are free, free to choose, but where government is not as free to override their decisions. … In contrast to the free market’s invisible hand, which improves the lives of people, the government’s invisible foot tramples on people’s hopes and destroys their dreams.” These are sweet words for every man who chooses to murder someone and for every capitalist who turns the screw on workers because they, the murderer and the capitalist, will gain by it. 

U.S. liberals assure working people that the government can legislate and regulate to ensure various rights, curb the excesses of unrestrained private enterprise, and maintain health and safety while capitalists scramble for profit.

When it comes to building and operating airplanes safely, the liberals’ government for the people – but not much by the people – is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA has long required a series of certificates at checkpoints in the design, testing, building, and flying of airplanes. Each certificate is based on passing inspections and tests. However, FAA employees do not conduct every inspection. The agency has never had enough staff to do all that the law assigns to it. Since the mid-1950s, some certificate work has been delegated to private firms.

In 2005, the FAA delegated a big additional chunk of inspection. Congress had passed a law two years earlier that mandated what amounts to outsourcing government oversight. Under the new rules, Boeing certified its own designs and the airplanes it produced under the design! The FAA was reduced to spot checks of Boeing’s self-issued certificates. In addition, when Boeing outsources to foreign subcontractors, they do their own certification; the FAA does not have the budget to dispatch sufficient staff overseas. That is for manufacture; for airplanes in use, the FAA has similarly “certified” nearly one thousand foreign maintenance facilities that service U.S. aircraft.

When it introduced the new self-certifications, the FAA did a so-called cost-benefit analysis. It projected that the aviation industry would reap $25 billion in the next ten years.

Boeing management revealed the tilt to cost reduction over safety in a 2018 incident. Ed Pierson, a plant supervisor at the MAX’s production facility, went to Scott Campbell, the 737 general manager. Pierson, a former Navy pilot, told Campbell that the military would never tolerate the cavalier attitude towards safety of the 737 MAX. Campbell replied, “The military is not a profit-making organization.”

In plain language, government safety oversight of Boeing became more charade than reality.

Congress passed the law. Capitalists ensure that their wishes prevail over the interests of the public and the employees. Last year the airlines spent $30 million on federal lobbying. Boeing spent almost $15 million. Among the lobbyists Boeing hired were the Lugar Group and the Gephardt Group; it is no coincidence that men of these names were once leading senators. Trade unions neither can nor should try to match capital in this money game, but the IAM tossed $3 million into federal lobbying in 2023 (); the TWU spent half a million.

What Is a Communist Solution?

Capitalist firms exist to make a profit. According to the evidence, the profit drive is why design problems are overlooked, why cheaper cost outranks safety, why tests and inspections are corrupted – in short, why airlines fill risky airplanes with passengers and take them aloft.

Socialists insist that we must do away with production for profit and apply our labor to make useful, safe, and healthy things. This is true, but it is a fair question to ask, what is a communist solution when it comes to making and maintaining airliners? Without presuming to tell our children exactly what to do the day after revolution smashes the capitalist regime, we can suggest some measures.

Improved and equalized pay takes the sting out of outsourcing. It is fairly easy to abolish profit income, but it is a longer march to abolish income tied to each hour of labor. That is the communist goal, but so long as people work for pay, wages can be raised on the principle of leveling up: the lowest wages are raised faster than higher wages, heading toward an equal wage. Socialist firms will produce at lower cost by technical innovation, and by collectives of workers organizing their work well,  not by speedup and passing on shoddy stuff.

Consumer sunshine exposes bad work. The magazine and website Consumer Reports (CR), founded in 1936, tests products and reports what it finds. The scientists and engineers on their staff of fewer than 700 people exposed filter cigarettes for not reducing nicotine. They proved that the antenna in an iPhone model was defective, exposing Apple’s attempt to blame the human thumb for where it holds a phone.

CR does not have the resources to examine most products. Also, the prospective buyer of a car, a washing machine, or an airline ticket must seek out CR and pay before she sees what they found. CR is a proof of concept, not a solution by itself.

Such measures can do a lot, but the main thing for a socialist country on the path to communism is to put politics in command. Capitalism throws people into a fight for more wealth, more prestige, and more authority over other people. Economic and social forces drive people to look after their own survival first, to scramble for a better life for themselves and their family. The communist goal is a political and economic order that raises each of us so that we want to make the whole society prosperous. Our own satisfactions and health, our human and cultural fulfillment are but a share of the glories of the entire society. Whatever our line of work, we are like the scientist who wants to discover something, to advance human mastery and stewardship of the world, not file a patent and monetize knowledge. We are like the artist who paints or writes or composes to touch the souls of people, not to set a record for number of copies sold.

This change requires that we integrate political work into practical work. We involve everyone in reviews of what we produced and how we are producing it. We look not only at the quantity and quality of the product, but also, how is this work a step toward communism? We take ourselves and others step by step to the new outlook on labor and life.

We ask all workers to help plan and review the work as well as performing it. Then it becomes necessary to develop people to higher and broader capabilities. Communist society aims to shrink the opposition between mental and manual work, between arranging the work and doing it, and between giving instructions and taking orders.

Yes, it takes time to bring the shop staff together and hash out problems. Is that a waste? No, it is time taken to produce not only a good airplane but also capable, dedicated communist citizens. Look at the U.S. in its rotten capitalism, capable of vast, advanced production of things yet filled with people fighting depression, addictions, and rage that knows not its target.

When the Boeing employee Ed Pierson saw the disregard for safety in the production of the 737 MAX airliner, he could not keep it inside his gut. He spoke to his boss, respecting the chain of command, and was bluntly told that profit rules. Go public? A whistleblower is typically fired or pushed out, followed by harassments to shut up “the snitch.” One of the political tasks on the communist path is to create platforms where an Ed Pierson can come forward and lay it out: “Look at what’s going on here. The passengers and crew who will be on these airliners are our communist family.”

The nosedive crashes of two Boeing 747 Max airliners took 346 lives. They are gone forever. If reflection on the evil that killed these people takes us a tiny step closer to the communist solution, those passengers and crew will not have died entirely in vain.


Charles Andrews is the author of The Hollow Colossus.