"If it ain't Boeing, I ain't going."
That enduring pilot credo helped define Boeing as a brand synonymous with safety. For much of the 20th century, Boeing's airplanes were the envy of the global aviation industry. In 2019, however, Boeing's reputation suffered immensely after two of the company's 737 MAX planes crashed within five months of each other, killing 346 people.
Those tragedies--and the corporate malfeasance that led to them--are the subject of the heart-wrenching documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, which premieres Friday, February 18, on Netflix. Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Rory Kennedy, Downfall recounts Boeing's stunning pattern of deception around the anti-stalling sensors that brought down Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. A damning account of corruption that led to a criminal conspiracy charge and a $2.5 billion settlement, the film delivers an important lesson about the danger of prioritizing shareholders over safety.
Part of what makes the documentary compelling is the way it provides a window into Boeing's internal deliberations about how to avoid regulatory scrutiny, by concealing its new anti-stalling system from the Federal Aviation Authority. "Boeing was basically in a position where it was self-regulating," Kennedy told Inc. in a recent interview. "Boeing didn't do its job of prioritizing excellence and safety over profit, and we have to be aware that corporations tend towards that."
Among the most shocking revelations in the film is that Boeing didn't tell pilots about the new anti-stall system either. A new safety-critical system would have required additional pilot training, at great expense to the company. Much of the reporting that helped bring Boeing's actions to light comes from former Wall Street Journal reporter Andy Pasztor, who points out that Boeing had always taken pride in its steadfast commitment to safety and quality. "Their reputation for safety was tremendous," Pasztor says in the film. That changed in 1997 when Boeing merged with rival McDonnell-Douglas, whose leadership changed the combined company's culture to one that prioritized growing the value of its stock.
Downfall makes a convincing argument that the tragic crashes of 2018 and 2019 can be traced back to that culture of growth combined with competition from a foreign rival. When Europe's Airbus introduced the fuel-efficient A320neo in 2010, Boeing responded by updating its existing 737 planes with fuel-efficient engines rather than building an entirely new aircraft. The decision would lead to quicker regulatory approval and, critically, no additional pilot training. The weight and power of the new engines, however, created an increased risk of stalling, which in turn led to the development of Boeing's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
Arguably more mind-boggling than Boeing's willingness to deceive the FAA, however, was its efforts to avoid grounding the 737 MAX after the crashes of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines planes. Even after identifying the risks related to the MCAS, which required a software update that would take at least six weeks, Boeing executives wanted to keep the plane in the air. "They were betting that the problem would not reoccur before they implemented a fix," Pasztor says in the film.
While Downfall would benefit from more sources who could provide even greater insight into how Boeing's deceitful behavior went unchecked, the documentary succeeds at charting the company's long path from aviation greatness to infamy. Any entrepreneur watching the film would be hard-pressed to miss the lesson that short-term gain can come at the expense of long-term success.
"Boeing has done extraordinary things and the profits have always followed," Kennedy said. "I think that if you prioritize excellence and safety and the public interest, it might take a little longer to get there, but you get there."