FRONTLINE: Boeing's Fatal Flaw
Encore Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, Oct. 28 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2 / On Demand
Drawing on the extensive reporting by a team of New York Times investigative journalists with experts and Boeing insiders, "Boeing’s Fatal Flaw" tells the inside story of the fastest selling jet in Boeing history, how a software system that was supposed to keep people safe led to their deaths, and how intense market pressure and flawed oversight contributed to a catastrophic crisis for one of world’s most iconic industrial names.
As the film details, in the wake of the deadly October 2018 crash of Lion Air Flight 610, the company quickly identified a software glitch and began working on a fix. But it stood by its new commercial jet and suggested pilot error played a role.
As FRONTLINE and The New York Times report, though, experts who examined the deadly crash saw something much more serious: “I talked to three managers, said ‘this is a design flaw,’” says Joe Jacobsen, a former Federal Aviation Administration engineer based in Seattle who worked closely with Boeing, speaking in his first on-camera interview. “They were skeptical, not really buying in saying [that] pilots should have been able to intervene.”
Boeing responded to the Lion Air tragedy with an advisory to pilots about potential malfunctions, and the FAA did not ground the planes. Five months later, a second Boeing 737 Max 8, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, went down. The two deadly crashes killed 346 people.
“One of the things that really struck me from speaking to a lot of Boeing employees was that they were so excited to go to work at Boeing. Boeing is a tremendous engineering company and a technical marvel but almost without failure, they point to a degradation of that mindset. And that safety suffered as a result,” says Doug Pasternak, who led the Congressional investigation into the 737 Max and speaks publicly in the film for the first time about what he found. “Looking backwards, I think you can clearly see the trajectory to tragedy along the way at Boeing.”
Boeing publicly said the Max went through a deliberate six-year development process. But the New York Times reporters found insiders who said that Boeing executives had been putting the pressure on to design the new 737 quickly - and cheaply. And "Boeing’s Fatal Flaw" examines the fateful decision to change a piece of software called MCAS — software that few pilots and airline executives even knew existed, and that included a key feature that would prove to make the system particularly dangerous.
Internal communications detailed in the film show that Boeing was determined to maintain the status quo — avoiding potential scrutiny by the FAA that would slow production, keeping new training for pilots about the software to a minimum, and even requesting that MCAS be removed from pilot training manuals. But inside Boeing, there were early signs of trouble.
“A Boeing test pilot was flying the Max in a flight simulator and trying to respond to an activation of MCAS and that resulted in what he described as a catastrophic event. It showed that if that had been in real life, he [could] have lost the airplane,” Pasternak says. “They realize from that moment on, even a Boeing test pilot may have trouble responding to MCAS.”
In examining how the 737 Max crashes happened, the film sheds light on an arrangement that allowed the government to give oversight powers to Boeing: “The airplanes are part of the story, but so are the regulators,” says Natalie Kitroeff, one of the The New York Times reporters that investigated the crashes.
“Boeing’s Fatal Flaw” also features the stories of those who have suffered from the disasters: The Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines victims’ families, some of whom lost multiple loved ones.
“I know that she wasn't afraid of flying at all, until the last six minutes of her life,” says Nadia Milleron, whose 24-year-old daughter, Samya Stumo, died aboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. “That's just a horrible betrayal that Boeing and the FAA caused for this person, the last moments of their life, and it kills me that that trust was betrayed.”
“On the flight of 737 Max crash we lost five of our family members. We had our mom, Anne Karanja, our dear sister, Carolyne Karanja. Her three kids, Ryan Njoroge, Kelli Wanjiiku and Rubi Wangui,” Quindos Karanja tells FRONTLINE and the Times.
“To this day, I think, Boeing doesn't accept full responsibility for these crashes, there's always the implication that if the pilots had acted appropriately, those 346 people would still be alive today,” says David Gelles, one of the New York Times reporters.
Boeing declined to be interviewed for the film. In a statement, the company said safety is its top priority and it has worked closely with regulators, investigators, and stakeholders “to implement changes that ensure accidents like these never happen again.”
Earlier this year, the company settled a criminal charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States brought by the Department of Justice and admitted to “misleading statements, half-truths and omissions” about MCAS. It agreed to pay $2.5 billion - $500 million to the families of the victims, and most of the rest to compensate the airlines.
The FAA cleared the 737 Max to resume flights and it is once again flying passengers around the world.
Before Deadly Crashes, Boeing Pushed for Law That Undercut Oversight (New York Times)
Boeing Was ‘Go, Go, Go’ to Beat Airbus With the 737 Max (New York Times)
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A FRONTLINE production with The New York Times and Left/Right Docs. The writer and director is Tom Jennings. The producers are Vanessa Fica and Kate McCormick. The reporters are David Gelles, James Glanz, Natalie Kitroeff and Jack Nicas. The senior producer is Frank Koughan. The executive producers for Left/Right Docs are Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.