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John Oliver calls for new leadership of Boeing: ‘Fix the culture that you have destroyed’

<span>John Oliver on Boeing: ‘At every point along the way, the FAA either delegated responsibility to Boeing, or gave them the benefit of the doubt, which hopefully they will never do again.’</span><span>Photograph: Max</span>
John Oliver on Boeing: ‘At every point along the way, the FAA either delegated responsibility to Boeing, or gave them the benefit of the doubt, which hopefully they will never do again.’Photograph: Max

John Oliver dug into commercial air travel and specifically the troubled recent safety record of Boeing, a few weeks after a door popped off a Boeing 737 Max-9 flown by Alaska Airlines mid-flight.

A few passengers were injured in the incident, and that was luck – if someone had been sitting in the exit row seat without a seatbelt, or if the door had fallen off at a higher altitude, the injuries could have been catastrophic. The plane was also new – it had been delivered by the manufacturer Boeing to Alaska Airlines two months earlier. “That’s too soon for a sneaker to fall apart, let alone a multimillion-dollar aircraft,” the Last Week Tonight host explained.

According to the preliminary investigation, four bolts that were supposed to hold the door in place were missing; Alaska Airlines subsequently found loose bolts on “many” of its Max 9 airplanes.

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“It’s beginning to feel like this might be a much broader issue within Boeing,” said Oliver, “because it comes on the heels of a years-long string of alarming incidents”, from fires on board to a pair of devastating crashes that were blamed on Boeing planes. The Federal Aviation Administration recently gave the company 90 days to address safety issues, given reports that employees felt scared to report any concerns.

It’s a concerning turn for a US company that used to be synonymous with safety and craftsmanship. Best known for revolutionizing commercial aviation, Boeing for decades maintained a sterling reputation for excellence.

But in 1996, Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas, a company known for building military planes with a terrible safety record. “Was merging with the McDonnell Douglas aerospace corporation slash murder emporium the worst decision that Boeing CEO’s worst decision? Probably not,” said Oliver, because the then CEO Philip Condit married his first cousin. “So the last decision I’d ask this guy to make is who it’s a good idea to couple up with.”

A profit-driven culture took over; within a few years, the company introduced a stock buyback program, as priorities shifted from safety and product to stock prices. Oliver outlined how this process affected the development of the 787 Dreamliner in the 2000s, which was given less than half the budget of previous planes, and outsourced production to 50 different suppliers. “So basically, the plan was for Boeing to create the plane the same way someone ‘creates’ a gingerbread house from a kit,” said Oliver, “essentially assembling a bunch of pieces other people made, leading to a finished product that, structurally speaking, was always going to be a fucking mess.”

The Dreamliner, released three years late and $25bn over budget, was eventually grounded due to several fires on board within days of each other, the result of defective batteries made by a subcontractor and not audited by Boeing.

The company tried to rebound with the 737 Max model under the slogan “more is less”. At the same time, from 2014 to 2018, the company diverted 92% of operating cash flow to dividends and share buybacks to benefit investors, far exceeding its investment in research and development. And then two catastrophic crashes – the 2018 Lion Air crash, killing 189, and the 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed 157 people – highlighted significant safety concerns.

Oliver summarized the issue with Boeing Max’s MCAS system, which altered the plane’s angle and could be compromised by a single sensor that could be knocked off by a bird or a balloon. Even worse, Boeing did not tell pilots about the MCAS system, which would require retraining. “How is information about a system that could crash the plane ‘unnecessary’?” Oliver fumed. “It’s not ‘all Fruit Loops are the same flavor’, or ‘identical twins don’t have the same fingerprints’, or ‘if you give a mirror to a dolphin, they’ll admire their own genitals’. All of that is good information, but unnecessary for a pilot to know. But ‘we put some software on the plane that might try and murder you’ feels important.”

After the Lion Air crash, Boeing promised to have a software fix for MCAS within six weeks. That didn’t happen; instead, the company authorized a record $20bn share buyback program. “So clearly they were concerned about safety – specifically, the safety of their fucking stock price,” Oliver exclaimed.

The FAA grounded the 737 Max 3 days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash. During the plane’s two-year grounding, a congressional investigation found damning emails from employees aware of the MCAS issues – “this airplane is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys”, wrote one.

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Which prompted Oliver to wonder: “Where the fuck are the regulators?” For one, the FAA relied heavily on Boeing employees to vouch for the aircraft’s safety, because it lacked the ability to effectively analyze what Boeing shared. Also, Boeing appointed their own inspectors, employed by the company. “Boeing was paying Boeing employees to regulate Boeing,” said Oliver. “It’s the most incestuous relationship we’ve seen in this story so far, which is saying something because remember, this guy [former CEO Condit] was fucking his first cousin.

“At every point along the way, the FAA either delegated responsibility to Boeing, or gave them the benefit of the doubt, which hopefully they will never do again,” Oliver summarized. “Because Boeing, like so many American companies, seems to be coasting on a reputation it built up over decades even though it squanders it quarter by quarter.”

Oliver echoed Boeing whistleblowers in calling for new leadership for the company, despite its public promises for more transparency and accountability. “If you truly are too big to fail,” he concluded, “that should mean that you are big enough to spend the time and resources required to fix the culture that you have destroyed.”