Observations On “Flight/Risk”…And Related Matters

“Flight/Risk,” an Amazon production, was released on the streaming service today. The documentary is the most recent examination of the tragedy and scandals surrounding the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max planes within a five month period in late 2018 and early 2019. The horrible and disturbing story  is narrated by Pulitzer-winning Seattle Times journalist Dominic Gates, and revealed from the perspective of the deceased passengers family members, their lawyers, and whistleblowers.

Amazon’s fatuous description of its own product, primarily designed to be a “trigger warning,” explains that the movie may be too traumatic to watch for “some” and says the planes crashed “without anyone really understanding why.” That is, to be blunt and vulgar, bullshit. Lots of people understood why, including Boeing engineers, Boeing executives, FAA officials, and anyone (like me) who knows why large organizations are almost always incompetent, unethical and untrustworthy. {Ethics Alarms has several posts about the 737 Max scandal.]

What is so infuriating about the story is that it is so familiar. This is the Challenger disaster all over again, even to the detail of a whistle-blowing engineer being punished for having the courage to speak up, and eventually killing himself. In other ways, it is like the recent Ernst and Young cheating scandal, which Ethics Alarms discussed here.

The people who need to see this documentary and process its lessons won’t. Prime among them are the big government advocates—you know who they are—the tunnel-visioned statists who insist that more and more government control of our lives is the solution to all of society’s problems. Unfortunately, that fantasy depends on another, which is that human beings are ethical, intelligent, selfless and efficient, and are more so when gathered together in huge bureaucracies. They are not and have never been; they never will be. And still we hope, depend, and give such bureaucracies more and more control, paying for it and suffering for it all the way, year after year, decade after decade.

Boeing shows us how corporations think and operate in the 737 Max saga; the FAA demonstrates how the government too often handles its responsibilities. Neither is an exception or an anomaly. Perhaps the greatest failing of the film is that it never makes that point.

Late in the documentary, we see a clip from a Senate hearing on the fiasco in 2020.  We have learned, by now, that a study done by the FAA on the fatal feature of the Boeing plane before it was manufactured estimated that 15 planes would crash over the life of the fleet, yet the plane was certified to fly anyway. Asked by Senator Cruz if Boeing and the FAA made “mistakes” that resulted in hundreds of deaths, the agency’s chief says, “Mistakes were made, yes.” Cruz immediately reminds him that the passive voice is how the government ducks responsibility, and asks, in sequence, “Has anyone been fired?” “Has anyone been demoted?” “Has anyone been disciplined?” The answer to all of these is, “No.”

By pure coincidence, an article about the ethics issues raised by the accounting cheating scandals addresses ethics issues that also apply to the Boeing/FAA scandal. I was interviewed by the author, and my comments, I was pleased to discover, feature prominently in the analysis.

It is all the same problem, ultimately. To quote myself from the article, “Ethics doesn’t come into it at all.” Big organizations and bureaucracies don’t consider ethics. They aren’t built that way.

Now that’s a threat to democracy.

You can read “Absence of Ethical Behavior Communicates a Dangerous Message to Stakeholders” here.

5 thoughts on “Observations On “Flight/Risk”…And Related Matters

  1. A corollary- There is a new Ken Burns documentary about the Holocaust. Its advertisements propose that it was a failure of the American people. When, in fact, it was the antisemitism of the ruling Democratic party at the time, led by the antisemitic FDR, supported by the antisemitic NYT who failed to inform the American people.

  2. I too saw the documentary. You are perhaps being a little — just a little — too hard on Amazon: they produced the documentary after all (it surely won’t be popular, make them many friends or much money). And frankly, I am so tired of documentaries editorializing — liberal or conservative — and thereby misrepresenting history, that it was kind of fresh to let the films of Boeing and FAA execs lose all credibility through their own interviews and testimony.

    As a great counter to the negatives in the Boeing film, I am watching now another — “Secrets in the Sky” — which, cold war related or not, highlights the incredible genius, generosity, and risk-taking — for the public good — of American early flight engineers and pilots. The engineers all worked (for peanuts) for a branch of McDonnell Douglas called the Skunkworks. They changed the course of aviation history. I recommend it.

    (Aside from that, a family friend — with wife and two small kids — was a test pilot, and my most vivid memory of him was always in a body cast with a broken back… It seemed the normal situation for him. He was eventually killed in a test pilot accident. This doesn’t remove all my credibility on this issue, I don’t think, for if family history is correct, I was a tiny (tiny) tot at the time.)

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