Last October, a Lion Air flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, crashed twelve minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 passengers and crew members on board. Just over two weeks ago, an Ethiopian Air flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia crashed six minutes after its departure, killing all 157 people aboard. Both failed jetliners were Boeing 737 Max 8s, variants of the best-selling aircraft in history, and they lacked key safety features that perhaps could have warned of the problems that caused the fatal crashes.
The reason? Boeing attempted to upsell those key features. “They’re critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install,” aviation analyst Bjorn Fehrm told The Seattle Times. “Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”
This is common practice for the airplane manufacturer. “Boeing charges extra, for example, for a backup fire extinguisher in the cargo hold,” the New York Times reported. “Past incidences have shown that a single extinguishing system may not be enough to put out flames that spread rapidly through the plane.” One Brazilian carrier even ended up paying $6,700 extra for their 737 to feature oxygen masks for its crew. According to a 2013 report by Jackson Square Aviation, an airline could expect to pay about five percent of a plane’s final price on such “extras”.
So why can Boeing forgo the inclusion of critical safety measures, instead of being allowed to upsell them as if they were nonessential luxuries? Because regulators “don’t require them.” One important caveat: Boeing serves—in large part—as their own regulator. The Seattle Times’ Dominic Gates reported that:
“Early on in certification of the 737 MAX, the FAA safety engineering team divided up the technical assessments that would be delegated to Boeing versus those they considered more critical and would be retained within the FAA. But several FAA technical experts said in interviews that as certification proceeded, managers prodded them to speed the process.”
Boeing’s incestuous relationship with regulatory agencies doesn’t begin and end with the certification process.
“Last year Boeing alone spent $18.1 million for 98 lobbyists to influence Congress and the federal government, according to a database by the Center for Responsive Politics. An incredible 71 of those lobbyists previously worked either for Congress or a regulatory agency,” reported Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times. “Not sure how the government can fulfill any watchdog role when the company has it on such a tight leash.”
Boeing’s ability to upsell necessary safety features is clearly unethical, but what enables their foul business practices is a lack of funds going to third-party regulators while the real cash flows to lobbyist’s pockets.