Film review: Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (2022)

A recent post of mine discussed how the airline manufacturing company Boeing, despite having had a well-earned reputation for producing quality safe aircraft, suddenly in 2018 and 2019 had two crashes within five months of its new 737 Max planes that resulted in everyone on board being killed. The subsequent inquiry into what happened revealed that Boeing had been in decline for some time, especially after the merger with defense contractor McDonaldMcDonnell Douglas, when the shoddy practices of defense contractors and the drive for company profits to boost shareholder value and executive compensation became the main focus, as a 2019 article by Andrew Cockburn revealed that I linked to.

In a comment to that post, Sunday Afternoon pointed me to this documentary that looked at the results of the subsequent inquiry into what went wrong. What it reveals is infuriating about how Boeing executives ignored all warning signs that they were putting a dangerous plane into circulation and not giving pilots the training they needed to deal with its new features.

In a nutshell, what happened was this. Starting around 2002, Boeing was under pressure from Airbus because the latter’s new energy efficient planes were outselling them. Rather than develop a new plane of their own, which the bean counters at Boeing felt would take too long and cost too much, they ordered that the old standby 737 be modified to be more energy efficient. This required new engines to be placed on the old frame. But since these new engines were heavier, this could cause the plane to tilt upwards and stall. To overcome that, Boeing added a new feature called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) which consisted of a sensor in the nose of the plane that could detect when the angle of attack was too large, and then software would automatically adjust the horizontal stabilizer so as to push the nose of the plane down.

So far so good. One problem was that in their effort to cut costs, they installed only one sensor, when good engineering design calls for backup systems to be installed for any critical item. (Airbus has three sensors.) The second cost-cutting measure was to not tell pilots that there was this new feature on the plane nor require pilots to undergo flight simulator training on it, because that would add to the cost of the plane. Boeing went to great lengths to hide this from the federal regulators so that simulator training would not be demanded.

As a result, in both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines planes, the MCAS sensor malfunctioned and the automatic system kept forcing the nose down, overcoming the pilots’ desperate efforts to try and figure out what was going on and get the nose up again. Both planes thus crashed to the ground at high speed.

That was not all. In the aftermath of the crashes, Boeing insisted that the planes were safe and pointed the finger at the pilots and the airline companies, suggesting that they (being from Asian and African countries) were not as good as Americans and that this would not have happened with American airlines and pilots. But when the flight data and voice recorders were recovered, they revealed that the pilots had done everything that they could correctly but the plane was uncontrollable. Finally, airlines around the world began grounding their Boeing 737 Max planes and this forced the US to similarly do so.

Congress held an inquiry but Boeing stalled as long as they could to hand over internal documents. When they finally did so, the documents revealed how the company had for some time ignored any warning from their engineers and technical staff about any problems and even threatened and fired those who brought these things to their attention. They just did not want to hear and do anything that might slow down production or raise costs.

The CEO during that period Dennis Muilenberg was finally forced to resign in 2020. But as we know, in corporate America, failure and wrongdoing does not necessarily mean any consequences for the people responsible. He got a pension and retirement package worth $62 million. Boeing was charged with criminal conspiracy to defraud and agreed to pay the government $2.5 billion without admitting wrongdoing.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary that is being streamed on Netflix. It is well worth watching.


  1. says

    This isn’t just “the cost of doing business as usual;” it’s the cost of clinging to an ideology that almost literally treats big businesses and rich people as saints who can do no wrong and whose words and actions define “rationality” and who must never be criticized or constrained by anyone below their exalted station.

    This is the cost of libertarian ideology, Republican deregulation and defunding of government, and Republican demonization of both elected lawmakers and the civil servants who enforce the laws duly passed by same.

  2. says

    Can’t agree more. Every time I hear someone complain about “government”, I always remind them that government is not the problem, it’s the policies that are put in place (or not) by those in the positions of power. WE are the government. If we don’t like what’s going on, WE have the right to change it to something WE like better. Most folks seem never to have truly understood the phrase “government of the people, BY the people, FOR the people”. And seriously now, I can’t think of a more compact way of describing democratic socialism.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the merger with defense contractor McDonald Douglas…

    [ahem!] McDonnell Douglas -- though perhaps Boeing would have done better to merge with a hamburger chain…

    {I corrected it. Thanks! -- Mano]

  4. birgerjohansson says

    “how Boeing executives ignored all warning signs”

    That sounds familiar…like how NASA and Trump and BoJo and Enron and Dubya….”ignored all warning signs”.

  5. Deepak Shetty says

    Boeing was charged with criminal conspiracy to defraud and agreed to pay the government $2.5 billion without admitting wrongdoing

    Such settlements should be called bribes. If they are paying billions they damn well should be forced to admit wrongdoing.

  6. Deepak Shetty says

    @Raging Bee@1
    Libertarians are convinced that Government is the problem and the surest way to prove it is to put them in charge (see Reagan)

  7. John Morales says

    OK, I did wait.

    I get the sentiment “It is well worth watching.”

    But no. I shan’t, though I do have NetFlix, because now I know how it goes.
    Watching it would be a waste of time.

    So… good review, for mine. 🙂

  8. birgerjohansson says

    McDonnel, MacDonald it is all about cost cutting. The aircraft you fly in may be the aviation analog of a Krustyburger.

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