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Boeing Values Profits Over Lives—By Design

Recent airline crashes have finally made apparent how the company's drive for profits places the worth of human life somewhere below the size of its corporate dividends

Ethiopian relatives of crash victims grieve March 14 at the scene where an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 had crashed four days prior after departing from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo: Mulugeta Ayene / AP)

The fatal crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft on March 10 shows us in stark terms just how deadly unfettered capitalism is. Boeing has pushed the legal limits of how far a corporation can manipulate a system to maximize its profits, even if it means risking lives.

Just a few months ago, another fatal airline crash of the same type of Boeing aircraft, operated by Lion Air, resulted in 189 lives lost. The New York Times reported that what the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air flights had in common was that both doomed planes lacked safety features linked to why the pilots were unable to recover from erratic dips after takeoff. Those safety features, rather than being built into the standard models, cost extra. Imagine being told that your car’s seat belts were an optional feature that cost more and then finding out in a deadly crash just how important those belts are.

One expert explained that the optional features are “critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install,” and that “Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.” Perhaps the airlines purchasing the Max 8 aircraft from Boeing didn’t realize the safety features would make the difference between life and mass death. Perhaps, like Boeing, they were trying to cut costs and maximize profits—no matter the consequences.

The other aspect of this tragic story is how Boeing has essentially been regulating itself. In a March 13 New York Times op-ed, James E. Hall, who served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001, blasted the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2005 decision to turn over regulation of passenger aircrafts to aircraft manufacturers. “Rather than naming and supervising its own ‘designated airworthiness representatives’ the agency decided to allow Boeing and other manufacturers who qualified under the revised procedures to select their own employees to certify the safety of their aircraft,” Hall wrote. He explained that the FAA’s rationale was that “It would save the aviation industry about $25 billion from 2006 to 2015.” Hall noted, “This is a worrying move toward industry self-certification.”

The deadly crashes and revelations about self-regulation come while Boeing has infiltrated the top echelons of government, with acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan having spent more than 30 years at the corporation. According to The Los Angeles Times, Shanahan worked “as general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems and of Boeing Rotocraft Systems, which made the Apache, Chinook and Osprey military aircraft.” In other words, he oversaw those parts of the company that had the greatest ties to government contracts for military hardware.

Now, just months into the job, Shanahan is facing accusations of improperly promoting his former employer to its biggest customer. According to a complaint filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to the Office of Inspector General, “Shanahan appears to have violated ethics rules by promoting Boeing in the scope of his official duties at the Department of Defense (DOD) and disparaging the company’s competitors to his subordinates.”

The company has long been a player in Washington politics, heavily lobbying lawmakers for lucrative government contracts to buy expensive military hardware. Last year Boeing spent more than $15 million on its lobbying efforts and, according to The Hill, has “31 in-house lobbyists and 16 lobbying firms on retainer.” It has spent millions on political campaigns for lawmakers from both parties, ensuring bipartisan allegiance.

To summarize, Boeing has managed to take inordinate advantage of a system that is already rigged to benefit corporations. Boeing has a lengthy and impressive rap sheet, which has seemingly not gotten in the way of the government’s preferential treatment toward it. But the recent airline crashes have finally made apparent how the company’s drive for profits places the worth of human life somewhere below the size of its corporate dividends.

This drive is baked into our current form of capitalism. The only instances in which corporations respect human life are when they are forced to do so by strong government regulations and legislation. Fines are not enough; many corporations have simply accounted for them as the cost of doing business and as an overhead that ought to be minimized.

If you apply Boeing’s logic to nearly any other major industry in the U.S. today, the same pattern emerges. Our modern health care system is one where pharmaceutical corporations place profit over human lives and insurance companies refuse to cover services that can save lives because it is not profitable. Gun manufacturers continue to sell automatic rifles of the kind used in deadly mass shootings because they are more profitable than non-automatic weapons. And our energy sector is one where fossil fuel companies have placed lucrative oil and gas extraction over the future of the human species despite decades of foreknowledge of climate change. Even Donald Trump appears to have gamed the presidency to market his personal brand and raise the value of his businesses—at the expense of our democracy. The thirst for ever-higher profits is a deadly zero-sum game we are all destined to lose.

From Boeing’s perspective, it makes sense why the company’s top executives have done all they can to maximize profits, even at the expense of hundreds of lives. But from our perspective—that of living, breathing human beings—how does it make sense for us to tolerate such a system? The lives lost to the supremacy of profits are simply folded into the cost of doing business. We are all just variables on the corporate spreadsheet where profits must reign supreme.

Is it any wonder then, that Americans are drawn toward democratic socialism these days? Unfettered capitalism demonstrates its true colors to us every single day. And once in a while, the blood-soaked profits flash right before our eyes when 157 lives are lost in an instant, showing us in the starkest terms how little we have allowed our lives to be worth.

In the world Boeing occupies, our lives are expendable. It is time that Boeing and other corporations began operating on our terms and in our world.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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