United States: Profits trump safety at major airlines

April 9, 2024
man inspects damaged aircraft
NTSB investigator examines the fuselage of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Boeing 737-9 MAX. Photo: NTSB/Flickr (Public domain)

Since the year started, United Airlines (UA), Alaska and Southwest airlines have all had major safety incidents in the United States. One of the most widely reported was on January 5, when a panel on a two-month-old Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 jet blew off midair, 4900 metres above Oregon.

So far, the incidents and near catastrophes have involved Boeing aircraft assembled in unionised factories in Washington State (the 757 Max) and non-union facilities in South Carolina (the 787 Dreamliner). Subcontractors also make many of the parts for these aircraft.

Overall, unions represent only 35% of the industry’s 163,000 employees.

Workers in the so-called “right to work” states of the South earn much less for the same work. Anti-union laws have undermined 100% unionisation at organised factories and many workers falsely accept company arguments they are better off without a union.

Boeing workers — union and nonunion — understand that the safety problem is about management and quality control as executives rush to build aircraft to increase profits.

Federal government agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), have let the airlines off the hook since Boeing began building its new 737 Max aircraft in 2015.

The FAA looks out for the industry, not the safety of workers and the public. The NTSB — which leads investigations into incidents —is better, but has no enforcement powers.

Deep crisis

The New York Times recently summed up the current crisis, and reported that even industry executives have been forced to admit they have made mistakes. Boeing’s chief financial officer Brian West recently told an investor conference: “For years, we prioritized the movement of the airplane through the factory over getting it done right, and that’s got to change.”

The list of incidents reported by the NYT included “a new Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max plane which was on one of its first flights” in February 2023, “when an automated stabilizing system appeared to malfunction, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing soon after they took off. Less than two months later, an Alaska Airlines 737 Max plane with eight hours of total flight time was briefly grounded until mechanics resolved a problem with a fire detection system. And in November, an engine on a just-delivered United Airlines 737 Max failed at 37,000 feet.

“These incidents, which the airlines disclosed to the [FAA], were not widely reported. There were no indications that anyone was in danger, and it was not clear who was ultimately responsible for those problems.”

However, since the January 5 Alaska Airlines incident, “episodes like these have taken on new resonance, raising further questions about the quality of the planes Boeing is producing”.

Joe Jacobsen, an engineer and aviation safety expert who spent more than a decade at Boeing and more than 25 years at the FAA told the NYT: “There’s a lot of areas where things don’t seem to be put together right in the first place” and that there were “shortcuts everywhere”.

The NYT reported that, following January’s Alaska Airlines incident, “a six-week FAA audit of Boeing’s 737 Max production documented dozens of lapses in Boeing’s quality-control practices. The agency has given the company three months, or until about late May, to address quality-control issues.”

The Boeing Max 8 aircraft went on the market in May 2017. One former aircraft mechanic at the company’s Renton assembly plant told the NYT and Seattle TV station KIRO 7, that he had noticed a cultural shift starting around the time the company introduced the Max aircraft.

“They were trying to get the plane rate up and then just kept crunching, crunching and crunching to go faster, faster, faster,” he said.

The first voyage of the Max 8 was in May 2017. Only two years later, this newly built aircraft had been involved in two fatal crashes: Indonesian-owned Lion Air Flight 302, which crashed on October 29, 2018, killing 346 people; and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed on March 10, 2019, killing all 157 on board.

Several current and former Boeing employees in South Carolina and Washington State, reported the NYT, said mechanics building planes were allowed in some instances to sign off on their own work. Such “self-verification” removes a crucial layer of quality control, they said.

Unions sidelined

In the aftermath of the Alaska Airlines incident, Boeing has shaken up its executive, but has not brought union voices onto its leadership bodies, leaving technicians and engineers — those who do the actual work — out of its decision-making processes.

Under capitalism, big business commonly does not listen to those at the point of production. Workers have knowledge, experience and expertise, but are rarely listened to until there is a tragedy.

Boeing has had many whistleblowers in lower management, but most have been forced into early retirement or pushed out.

I worked at United Airlines (UA) for more than two decades as a mechanic — at the San Francisco airport and in the shops. I served as a union shop steward and was involved in a contract negotiation.

Although mechanics were regularly given refresher training on the aircraft they worked, it was understood that all maintenance done had a long paper trail so if an incident occurred in flight there would be a verifiable reason, unless caused by a bird in an engine or other foreign object or debris.

However, more than 1700 veteran engineers left Boeing in 2022 in order to retire with healthier monthly pensions tied to rising interest rates, reported the NYT. According to the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, “[t]he members who left had been at the company for more than 23 years on average.

“We warned Boeing that it was going to lose a mountain of expertise, and we proposed some workarounds, but the company blew us off,” said SPEAA’s executive director Ray Goforth.

Goforth said he thought the company used the retirements as an opportunity to cut costs by replacing veteran workers with “lower-paid entry-level engineers and technical workers”.

As the NYT reported, “District 751 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) union, which represents more than 30,000 Boeing employees, said … [t]he proportion of its members who have less than six years of experience has roughly doubled to 50 percent from 25 percent before the pandemic.”

Labor’s response

IAM commenced negotiations with Boeing on a new union contract (agreement) in March. Their existing agreement expires in September.

As The Stand —Washington State’s pro-union news site — reported: “In addition to a seat on the company board, the union is seeking a wage increase of at least 40 percent over three to four years, restoring retirement security by reinstating the defined-benefit pension plan the company took away in 2014, lowering out-of-pocket healthcare costs, easing mandatory overtime and other work rules that negatively impact work-life balance, and ensuring that Boeing’s next airplane is built in the Puget Sound region.

Regarding maintaining aircraft safety, IAM District 751 President Jon Holden said in a statement: “We believe our voice and the voice of the engineers must be heard at the highest level of the company’s decision-making process.

“The safety of aircraft manufacturing isn’t negotiable and must be safeguarded above all else. We are committed to instilling a culture where the safety of aircraft production is an absolute imperative over anything else.”

The FAA announced on March 27 that the agency will increase its oversight of United Airlines.

Bob Fisher, Interim Director of the Teamsters Airline Division, responded: "Our dedicated technicians put their credentials on the line every day. All Teamsters aviation mechanics are fully aware that their work must be in accordance with the highest standards set forth by their employer and the FAA. It is the professionalism of Teamsters technicians' that has led to the safest era in aviation.

"United Airlines technicians will continue to provide the highest level of safety to all crew members and passengers because they believe in these standards to their core. We look forward to our continued work with federal agencies on improving aviation safety."

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) represents technicians at both Alaska and Southwest Airlines. It sends accident teams to investigations but has little say over company policy except through contract negotiations.

Unlike other unions, AMFA uses “open negotiations” to keep its members informed and to get their input. It seeks contractual changes to improve safety and hold airline executives accountable.

Aircraft workers and unions must have a place at the decision-making table. The machinists' demand at Boeing is justified so long as it remains independent and can discuss openly with its members without commercial secrecy restrictions.

Only steps like these can begin to exert the influence of working people to avoid future major incidents. Mechanics always place safety first since they and their families fly the same aircraft they service. However, shortcuts pushed by management are out of their control.

The lesson of the recent incidents and earlier 737 Max crashes is why more power must be given to the workers who assemble, maintain and fix the planes.

[This article was corrected to clarify that the machinists union (the IAM) is  requesting a seat on Boeing's board, not the Teamsters.]

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