|Run Time: 89 minutes|
Release Year: 2022
Directed by: Rory Kennedy
Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is a damning documentary against the premier American aircraft manufacturer. Available on Netflix and directed by Rory Kennedy, this feature uncovers the reality behind the air crashes in Indonesia (2018) and Ethiopia (2019).
Working both like an investigative thriller and an informative feature, Downfall: The Case Against Boeing rings several alarm bells during its run time of 90 minutes.
Until the Lion Air crash in Indonesia in 2018, commercial aviation was enjoying one of the safest periods in air travel – there was no big passenger jet crash in the previous year.
But it all changed on that fateful day when 189 people onboard the Lion Air flight perished within 13 minutes of its take-off. The type of plane was a 737 Max.
As a viewer, what I found both compelling and disturbing, was how meticulously the documentary describes those crucial 13 minutes inside the cockpit, from the pilots’ perspective.
As soon as the plane took off, the pilots were faced with a tidal wave of distractions. All the crucial sensors and alerts inside the cockpit came alive, perplexing the two pilots. We find out later that even if the pilots knew what they were up against, they would have had only 10 seconds to turn their fate around. An impossible task, utters one of the experts in the documentary.
Boeing wasn’t even done with the Indonesia problem, when less than five months later, another 737 Max – this time, an Ethiopian Airlines flight going from Addis Ababa to Nairobi – crashed in an Ethiopian village. All 157 onboard were dead and no bodies were found.
Boeing’s Shameful Response
The massive outcry stemming from two crashes pushed the Boeing executives into a corner. But you don’t expect a behemoth such as Boeing to come out clean right away. Its PR juggernaut did everything it could to swing the narrative and initially, succeeded, too.
In a reprehensible maneuver, Boeing tried to hang the blame on the airlines and their ‘ill-trained’ pilots. Irresponsible comments such as “…an American pilot would have never run into this situation” were hurled around in the Western media, insinuating that the Indonesian and Ethiopian crews were incompetent.
The reality was different though. It emerged from the subsequent investigations that a little-known software program called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) was behind the incidents.
The pilots of the two airplanes had no idea that there was something called MCAS on their planes. The documentary reveals that even the top aviation experts had no clue what the MCAS was. Boeing never told anyone.
Corporate Hubris at Boeing
The documentary blames Boeing’s fixation with stock price and quarterly profits for most of its problems. Over the years, a culture of concealment took root at Boeing and unwavering focus on customer safety became a thing of the past.
The allure of fat bonuses blinded its executives and the results were horrendous. The company committed egregious blunders that ultimately cost hundreds of lives.
We hear an insider talking about the change in the culture,
” the company pivoted to getting things done than stopping and paying attention to what employees were saying. When employees did raise their voices, they were asked to not document anything so culpable deniability be maintained.”
Boeing always knew about MCAS, but its financial priorities took precedence over all else. It wanted to sell the new 737 Maxes. The myopic executives, in order to save on the pilot retraining costs, avoided highlighting the radical redesign of the old 737 in its official documents.
Role of FAA
While Boeing deliberately circumvented any emphasis on MCAS and the new design in its official documents, the Federal Aviation Administration(FAA) also slept at the wheel.
The documentary, for its part, fails to widen the circle of blame to the FAA. It let Boeing self-certify the 737 Max under its nose. Even if it was oversight, it makes the FAA culpable, too.
One of the most gut-wrenching segments of Downfall is an interview of a woman who lost her father in the Ethiopia MAX crash. “There is no remorse for this for Boeing,” she said, “only financial targets.” She notes Dennis Muilenburg (Boeing’s then CEO) and her father were born in the same year. “One is living a lavish lifestyle. The other paid in his blood.”
Dennis Muilenburg resigned 2 months after Ethiopian air crash and received 62 million dollars in severance package.
Downfall leaves you with a sense of haplessness – you are led into thinking that a self-serving, callous behemoth like Boeing will always have its way. And why not? With profit maximization and quarterly results at the center, greed will always hold sway over matters of customer safety. Sadly, that’s the world we live in.
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