top of page

Boeing puts the wild into blue yonder


David Sherman


On the rare occasions I fly, I try to fly on a Boeing. Whether my destination is Toronto or Beijing, there’s nothing like a Boeing to ramp up that little tickle of anxiety flying elicits. Maybe it’s more like hair-raising, sphincter-crushing fear.

Now, most planes, Airbus, Embraer, Challenger, formerly built by Bombardier, a local company before sold to Airbus, do tickle that part of the brain that says, “We’re all going to die.”

With a Boeing, you have the extra frisson of knowing several hundred did crash, burn and die on the magnificent Max and almost 200 more came close to meeting their maker and debt collectors in a ball of fire just a few weeks ago. Now, there’s the added thrill of sweating a rudder bolt will come loose and behind closed doors pilots are fighting to let you fly another day.

Maybe a part of the fuselage -- the entire plane or aluminum can minus wings and landing gear -- will blow out to adorn someone’s garden way down there and there will be nothing between you and the bright blue sky except eternity and soiled shorts. Or maybe a loose wrench or an assembly-line worker’s meatball sub forgotten among the hundreds of kilometres of wiring will short out a wire causing a warning light to appear in the cockpit. And, as the recent Alaska Air exciting experience shows, it will be reset and ignored.

But, Alaska Air had its passengers at the top of their list of concerns when they decided a new Boeing Max 9 – there are as many Maxes as there are Covid variants -- should forget about flying over water. After all, those pesky air pressurization warning lights came on several times. Thinking passengers first, since the plane might go down – Boeing builds planes with minds of their own -- they insisted it best if the plane fly over land. After all, without a pilot named Sullenberger, when landing on water a passenger jet plane tends to sink like an apartment building.

Considerate Alaska Air wanted to ramp up passenger excitement by giving its paying customers a chance at staying alive if those warning lights were actually right, and something was wrong. So, the pilots were instructed to fly over land, maybe not too far from a runway or even a highway.


The design miracle known as the Boeing Max has delighted shareholders. Built on an old and tired airframe first flown in 1968 and upgraded through a variety of iterations and numbers to keep up with Airbus, they built almost 12,000 of them with orders for 4,000 more. The Max, in a variety of sizes and fitted with new engines the plane was not designed to support, is Boeing’s pot of gold. It’s an old plane constantly being upgraded but not redesigned. Big profits, minimal investment. A shareholder’s wet dream. Passengers not so much. Us old-fashioned types still believe better they take apart the plane than the plane take us apart but that’s so last century.

Much of Boeings’ Max manufacturing is farmed out to subcontractor Spirit AeroSystems, a company formerly owned by Boeing and is now struggling to stay afloat and refinance more than $1 billion in debt. It builds the fuselage we sit in to pray we will land without crashing, burning and dying.

It would be cynical to think Boeing contracts with another company to build much of their plane, a company they used to own, because subcontractors are often a source of cheap labour.

A quick Google search of average wage at Spirit lists it at $16/hour. At Boeing it’s $20 to $28.50, the difference between eating dinners of pasta with garlic or roast chicken and broccoli. And maybe another bedroom and another kid.

These are not concerns for the CEO of Spirit who earns more than $11 million a year. Boeing’s CEO pockets $22 million annually, but had his wrist slapped and lost his $7 million bonus.

The fact pieces from subcontractors for several planes didn’t fit was problematic – damn those nasty paper-thin spaces between pieces -- and postponed delivery not only on the Max but a new, albeit delayed, plane, a 777, that has yet to see a passenger. It is used for freight, perhaps because if it misbehaves, they lose pilots and cargo but save a bundle on litigation.

So, shareholders were happy and stock was riding high. And when workers complained about shoddy construction, they were told to shut up. Or, in some cases, to falsify documents. What Boeing showed the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration it was going to build, it turns out, might not have been what it actually loaded passengers onto. Americans do not take kindly to government intrusion unless it involves grants and tax breaks, which Boing Boing grabbed with elan.

Governments trusted Boeing to basically police themselves, in part because executives from Boeing, also a big-time supplier of military hardware, often take jobs with the U.S. government and people in government often go to work for Boeing. And, maybe, paying a fleet of lawyers and lawsuits is cheaper and quicker than redesigning a plane to compete with Airbus

It's a love affair made in stock-market and government-lobbying heaven.

My affection for Boeing only grew when it insisted passengers who met their maker on the two Maxes that crashed didn’t endure pain and suffering. They had expert testimony, during one of the myriad of court cases, that the flying hearses crashed at a speed that would have immolated them instantly. They wouldn’t have felt a thing. So, no pain or suffering there.

I imagine the almost 400 passengers that were blown to bits didn’t suffer as the plane dove them to their painless demise because they were all caught up in exciting in-flight entertainment.

Those two Maxes that went nose-first into the ground cost almost 400 lives, Boeing $20 billion and counting and created chaos in the flying world. But, the Max was flying again and so was the stock, at least until the latest debacle. Investors made a killing after passengers were killed by buying shares cheap then watching it climb as time and other calamities made corporate and government malfeasance not only normal but expected.

Now, after the latest incident that destroyed some seats but killed no one, comes reports that inspection of the Max 9 has shown holes in some aircraft were improperly drilled, bolts are loose on rudders, bolts were loose on the fuselage, bolts were perhaps forgotten completely, brackets are loose on the vertical tail and screws are loose on anyone that trusts their life to Boeing.

And the latest Max has been grounded. Maxes have spent a lot of time on the ground, a blessing for all but investors. I feel their pain. But you dance with the devil, you end up getting burnt. Sometimes.

Boeing had other issues with Spirit twice in the past year. One case involved fittings that attach the vertical tail fin to the fuselage. In the other, holes were improperly drilled in the aft pressure bulkhead in some Max 8s. Stuff happens.

Used to be flying was a joy, adventurous, thrilling. Food was edible and your legs could fly with you rather than being stored in the overhead bin.

Fear of Flying was a title of a 1973 best-seller with juicy bits of female sexuality by Erica Jong. Now, flying means wondering if your air sickness bag will hold your systems’ rejection of what’s termed dinner. You check your life insurance and try to believe there is a God -- if only temporarily -- cause how can praying hurt?

Personally, if there’s a “maker” I’m going to meet, I’d prefer not to be as a vapourized investor benefit but over a burger where I could ask him or her or they, "What’s with this arthritis?"



42 views4 comments
bottom of page