It’s impossible for anyone following Boeing’s trajectory to watch the compelling documentary “Flight/Risk” without concluding that the Jack Welch-inspired management of the company has a body count.

Specifically, the 346 people who perished in two 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019. They were victims of a corporate culture driven by pumping up short-term earnings and the stock price — and devil take the hindmost, especially the careful engineering culture of Boeing before its merger with McDonnell Douglas and move to Chicago, now Washington, D.C.

Boeing has moved away from more than its culture; it also downsized its footprint in the Puget Sound region, the largest aerospace cluster in the world along with Airbus’ facility in France. It busted local unions and relocated an assembly to North Charleston, South Carolina, specifically to punish the company’s one-time home.

That culture was set in place by Welch acolyte Jim McNerney, who lost out to succeed “Neutron Jack” as head of General Electric. It continues under Dave Calhoun, a 26-year GE veteran.

But as the film makes clear, the rot that produced these lethal crashes goes beyond one company. Much of this bears an eerie similarity to the Panic of 2008, which nearly collapsed the economy and caused the Great Recession. Industry captured regulators, risk-taking was encouraged, whistleblowers were ignored and warning flags were dismissed.

Many of us who flew in those months between the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia on Oct. 29, 2018, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019 — after which the airliner was grounded — have personal experiences. I flew to Phoenix on a Southwest Airlines 737 MAX that winter, remarking on the airliner to the crew. The usually jovial crew members were stiff and defensive.


Even with the MAX now fixed, safe and flying again, revelations continue to emerge about how the original approval of the plane was handled, widening the circle of blame to include not only Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration but also the airlines.

My colleague Dominic Gates, who shared a Pulitzer Prize with three other Seattle Times reporters for digging out the MAX story, reported this past May on a class-action lawsuit in Texas. It alleges that, to avoid triggering a need for extra training for its pilots, Southwest discussed with Boeing in 2016 a ploy to deceive the FAA about a new system in the plane’s flight controls.

The FAA was especially culpable. Confronted with a radical redesign of the 55-year-old airliner, the regulator chose to look the other way. Most egregiously, the FAA allowed Boeing to self-certify the MAX and ignored a high risk of future crashes.

Boeing pushed the FAA in 2014 to relax the safety standards for the MAX to avoid having to upgrade the system that alerts the crew if something goes wrong during flight.

At the heart of the crashes was a new software in the airliner called MCAS or Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. Pilots received minimal or no training in the system, which, as Gates wrote, “Understated the power of the new flight control system, which was designed to swivel the horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document.”

A U.S. House committee presented new evidence in 2019 of internal company documents before the first crash of engineers warning of “potentially catastrophic” consequences of the new system. The documents were either dismissed or not communicated to regulators.


As with so much else on the MAX, Boeing was pushing to fill orders for the new airliner and maximize profits. A whistleblower warned the assembly line was being unsafely rushed to get the plane out the door and delivered to airlines. His warnings were ignored.

Boeing’s board fired CEO Dennis Muilenburg — who repeatedly refused to accept Boeing’s blame for the crashes and only belatedly apologized — in December 2019. Although he received no severance, he left with a $15 million pension, a $4 million annual salary and stock awards valued at $39 million at the time.

One of the most gut-wrenching segments of “Flight/Risk” is an interview of a woman who lost her father in the Ethiopia MAX crash.

“There is no remorse for this for Boeing,” she said, “only financial targets.” She noted Muilenburg and her father were born in the same year. “One is living a lavish lifestyle. The other paid in his blood.”

In late 2020, the 737 MAX was finally cleared to fly again. The FAA has tightened control over Boeing after the MAX crashes, and the airliner is in service around the world.

This past year was among the safest in the history of jet travel, with 22 million flights and only one fatal accident. For North American airlines, the fatality rate was zero.

That doesn’t give me much comfort. I wish we could count on lessons learned from the MAX catastrophe sticking. I wish we had the option of widespread passenger trains and especially high-speed rail. The United States is the only advanced, highly urbanized nation on Earth without it. China has built around 23,500 miles of high-speed rail.

Finally, as long as “shareholder value” and an obsession for short-term profits takes a front seat before safety, we’re still at risk.

Flight risk. That sums it up.