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Those Boeing Crashes and Donald Trump

It would be convenient to blame Trump’s deregulation. But the regulatory failure that ended in two tragic crashes was all too bipartisan

A Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane sits on the assembly line in an assembly facility in Renton, Washington. (Photo: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane sits on the assembly line in an assembly facility in Renton, Washington. (Photo: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

If you are a casual follower of the story of the crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX airliners, you are probably aware that a sensor malfunction caused an automatic software program to mistakenly point the plane’s nose downward to prevent a stall, overriding the pilot, and sometimes putting the plane on a crash trajectory. If you read a little deeper, you know that pilots often had less than a minute to take back control from the flawed automatic system, and were not adequately trained in how it worked.

So the sensors, the software, and Boeing’s provision of crucial information to pilots were all badly flawed. If that were the full story, it would be bad enough. 

But there are two deeper stories, which are even more damning both of Boeing and of the federal government. And they connect to an even more fundamental story that takes us back to how Trump managed to get elected in the first place.

Why did Boeing need to add those sensors and that software? Because the design of the plane itself was badly flawed, and the software was intended as a patch in the event that the plane began flying erratically.

In 2011, executives at Boeing were losing orders to rival Airbus, which was rapidly gaining market share with its new, fuel-efficient 320neo planes. In 2006, Boeing had announced a plan to replace the already aging 737s with a wholly new plane. But in 2011, executives panicked and decided to embark on a crash program, so to speak, to fit the 737 with new, heavier, more fuel-efficient engines to compete with Airbus. This was dubbed the 737 MAX.

The trouble was that the 737 had not been designed for heavier engines, and the substitution of engines made the plane less stable. Thus the need for the sensors and software, which themselves turned out to have bugs.

Meanwhile, under the Bush administration in 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration began delegating more power to aircraft manufacturers to certify the safety of an aircraft instead of leaving the job to outside FAA engineers. This program was continued by the incoming Obama administration in 2009.

Leaked documents to the FAA’s inspector general demonstrated that engineers at Boeing had safety concerns that safety was being sacrificed in the rush to get the 737 MAX to market. But the FAA took no action, and the plane was duly certified. 

So this failed system is not just aeronautic; it is regulatory.

So this failed system is not just aeronautic; it is regulatory. Trump has doubled down on allowing even more self-certification. But the systematic regulatory lapse extends back through prior administrations, both Democratic and Republican. 

If this regulatory failure were just a story of the FAA and aircraft safety, that would a scandal all by itself.  But of course these failures exist throughout the economy, from banking non-regulation and the 2008 financial collapse, to the default of antitrust regulation permitting the malignant domination of a few giant tech platform monopolies, to the grotesque pricing abuses of the drug industry, not to mention OxyContin, and on and on. 

Under both parties, regulators have been substantially captured, and euthanized. This is the larger lesson of those 737 MAX crashes, if we bother to connect the dots. 

And there is one more dot. The growing and accurate sense on the part of ordinary people, that the rules were rigged on behalf of the wealthy and the powerful, led a lot of voters (who knew little about the details but experienced the stunting of their own lives) to votefor You Know Who.

The crashes of the 737 MAX flights echo the crashed legitimacy of an entire system.

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Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post. He is the author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, Obama's Challenge, and other books.

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