The Boeing 737 Max: When Cost Cutting Threatens Passengers’ Lives

Boeing 737 Max: Deadly Assumptions

DW (2020)

Film Review

This documentary concerns worrying shortcuts Boeing took in its development of the 737 Max, resulting in two fatal crashes (and 346 death) in 2018 and 2019. Filmmakers obtained their information from Boeing whistleblowers and from a lawsuit victims’ family filed against the manufacturer. The film also raises troubling questions about the failure of the FAA to adequately enforce safety regulations.

The first Max crashed in Indonesia in October 2018. On investigation, the FAA, identified a potential for the plane’s MCAS software system to malfunction. Statistically  engineers predicted the faulty MCAS could cause one plane crash every three years. Victims of the second, Ethiopia Airlines, crash assert that either Boeing or the FAA should have grounded the 737 Max at this point. However, for some inexplicable reason, both deemed the risk to be acceptable.

According to lawyers for the victims, Boeing began work on the Max in 2011 to compete with the Eurobus Neo. Launched n December 2010, enhanced fuel efficiency made the latter far cheaper to operate than anything Boeing had to offer. Instead of designing a totally new aircraft, to save costs Boeing simply mounted the engines higher on their 50-year-old 737 model. To compensate for the difficulty in manoeuvrability this caused, the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation Software System (MCAS).

The MCAS, in turn,  had an unfortunate tendency to increase the plane’s downward thrust without the pilot’s knowledge The second crash led both the EU and China to immediately ground their Max jets, with the FAA following suit a day later. Although Boeing had warned pilots about potential problems with the MCAS after the first crash, the Ethiopian Airlines pilot was unable to compensate for the downward thrust effect of the MCAS. Again owing to cost concerns, Boeing had resisted offering pilots simulator training on the faulty planes.

Boeing whistleblowers informed filmmakers about other Boeing cost cutting measures that pose potential risks to passenger safety. Examples include 800 airplanes with damaged bolts (caused by using the wrong tool to tighten them), metal slivers in the wiring (that could cause shorts by damaging the insulation) and oxygen masks (on the 787) that fail to deploy 25% of the time.

According to the New York Times, the FAA and Canadian and Brazilian regulators lifted their grounding ban on the Max in  December 2020. The families of those killed aboard the two fatal flights argue the Max is still unfit to fly. For now, American and other airlines allow “anxious” passengers to rebook flights if they wish to avoid the troubled aircraft.

War Games: Why NORAD Failed to Stop the 911 Hijackers

9/11 War Games

Directed by James Corbett (2018)

Film Review

This documentary presents a well-produced investigation into the multiple war games the Pentagon coincidentally scheduled simultaneous with the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In conjunction with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), NORAD (North American Aerospace Command have a well established protocol of using Air Force jets to intercept hijacked airliners and either forcing them to land or shooting them down. On 9-11, the protocol failed – no fighters jets were scrambled to intercept the three planes that reportedly crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. All available evidence suggests that four Air Force war games (three involving simulating hijackings) created so much confusion for air traffic controllers and FAA and NORAD officials that they paralyzed their ability to respond to the real hijackings.

The film is based on research by the late Michael Ruppert, archived audio recordings of air traffic controllers and FAA and NORAD, and testimony to the 9-11 Commission.

Much detailed information about these simulated attacks remains classified. However the names of four of the simulation exercises are known:

  • Northern Vigilance – an exercise which sent most of the US fighter jets on duty to northern Canada and Alaska for the day.
  • Vigilant Guardian and Tripod 2 – exercises which inserted numerous false radar blips on air traffic controller screens to test their ability to respond to them.
  • Vigilant Warrior – an exercise consisting of numerous “live fly” hijack drills, in which military personnel dressed as civilians would board civilian flights and simulate fake hijackings.

FAA/NORAD officials confronted with 22 possible hijackings had only eight fighter jets available to respond to them  most were in Canada participating in Northern Vigilance). In three instances (Delta 1989, United Airlines 177 and Continental 321), fighter jets intercepted “simulated” hijackings and forced airliners to land.


The Airlines’ Toxic Little Secret

How Safe is Air Travel?

If you’re planning a plane trip soon you need to know about a condition that can cause airline pilots to develop brain fog and become confused and disoriented during flights. It’s known as aerotoxic syndrome. Tristan Loraine, former pilot and founder of the Aerotoxic Association, has documented dozens of cases (and two deaths) among pilots and cabin crews. It can also affect passengers and is suspected as the cause of unexplained midair collisions.

A Dorset (UK) coroner investigating the 2012 death of a British Airways pilot Richard Westgate has brought the issue to mainstream media attention by calling on British Airways and Britain’s Civil Aviation authority to take “urgent action to prevent future deaths.”  Frank Cannon, the lawyer for the Westgate case, also represents fifty other air crew, employed by several different airlines, affected by the condition.

The Cause of Aerotoxic Syndrome

Although aircraft manufacturers have known about the problem for decades, the term “aerotoxic syndrome” was first coined in 1999 by doctors treating air crews for the condition. The cause of the condition is repeated exposure to organophosphates* (as well as hundreds of carcinogens) that leak into the air used for pressurization. Sufferers typically show elevated levels of the organophosphate tricresyl phosphate (TCP) in their blood.

Commercial passenger planes compress air from the engines to pressurize the cockpit and cabin. There are seals meant to separate engine oil and so-called “bleed air,” but these commonly leak with age (most airlines rely mainly on aircraft that are fifteen to twenty years old) and inadequate maintenance. A recent 60 Minutes-Australia investigation found contaminated air in 50% of the aircraft they tested. The clip below also cites a 2007 memo by a senior Boeing inspector warning that “lives need to be lost” before Boeing takes action on preventing aerotoxic syndrome.

Loraine Calls for Organophosphate Detectors and Filtration Systems

Lorrine sees the introduction of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner — the first and only new commercial jet in which air isn’t drawn from the engines — as an admission of the risk by the airlines. The former pilot, who has made a documentary about aerotoxic syndrome, insists at minimum airlines should install organophosphate detectors in their cabins and cockpits. He claims the reason they refuse to do so is because they would go off all the time and alarm passengers.

He also points out that current aircraft could be fitted with filtration systems at a cost of no more than £20,000 each.

The FAA Position on Aerotoxic Syndrome

Shortly after a 2010 CNN expose on aerotoxic syndrome, Senator Diane Feinstein championed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 required the agency to establish a research program focused on aircraft engine/APU bleed air cleaning and monitoring technology.

The following paragraph summarizes their findings:

The FAA conducted a safety database assessment (i.e. a computer search of the airlines own data) of airliner cabin air quality events involving 121 commercial air line operators. The results of the analysis indicate an extremely low occurrence involving bleed air contamination from engine oil or hydraulic fluid. While there are reports of purported personal injury in news media, medical privacy laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 prohibit the FAA from obtaining corroborating data which could be used to determine a causative relationship between air contaminant events and associated risk to passenger and flightdeck crew health

In other words, instead of testing the air quality of passenger airlines like 60 Minutes Australia, they merely rely on the airlines’ data to conclude the problem was non-existent.

The Significance of Genetic Variability

Like British and Australian regulators, the FAA is using broad statistical sampling to argue the so-called aerotoxic syndrome is no more prevalent in air crew than the general population – therefore it doesn’t exist. The fallacy here is that people have enormous genetic variability in their capacity to metabolize organophosphates. Paraoxonase (PON1) is one enzyme that inactivates some organophosphates through hydrolysis.  A 2006 report found a 13-fold variation in adults in PON1 levels and efficacy.

It logically follows that individuals with low PON1 levels are at higher risk of developing aerotoxic syndrome with repeated exposure to TCP.

Safer than Childbirth in Africa

The good news here is that air travel is probably safer than drinking arsenic or childbirth in Africa. However it’s clearly not as safe as airlines and regulators would lead us to believe. Those with urgent and compelling reasons to get on a commercial jet should either make sure it’s a Dreamliner or bring their own oxygen tank.

*Organophosphates are chemical compounds commonly used as insecticides. Because they are potent nerve poisons, they are commonly used as chemical warfare agents. Phosgene, the nerve gas used in Nazi gas chambers, was an organophosphate.


Link to Loraine’s 2007 documentary Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines

Good websites for additional information on aerotoxic syndrome

Also posted on Veterans Today