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Did A Boeing Design Flaw And Corporate Greed Lead To The Deaths Of 346 People?

In less than a year, two Boeing 737 MAX jets crashed within minutes of take-off, killing all 346 people on board. Were there warning signs that could have predicted the deadly disasters?

By Jill Sederstrom
Dennis Muilenburg G

It took just one minute into Massachusetts-native Samya Stumo’s March 10, 2019 flight out of Ethiopia for the pilot to register a flight control problem.

Five minutes later, the Boeing 737 MAX jet on which she was seated would disappear from air traffic control's radar screen and crash into a field, killing all 157 people on board — including Stumo, a 24-year-old working for a non-profit to bring healthcare to Africa

But it wasn’t the only initially inexplicable crash linked to the 737 MAX, according to Wednesday’s American Greed on CNBC.

Just five months earlier — in October of 2018 — another flight out of Jakarta, Indonesia had inexplicably begun heading into a violent 700-foot dive just minutes after take-off.

For 11 minutes, that flight's 31-year-old captain, Bhavye Suneja, battled his own jet, continuously pulling the nose of the plane up... only to have the jet careen downward once again. Panicked, Suneja searched the flight manual for some kind of guidance, but found nothing to help.

Ultimately, the plane crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board.

“The last stumbling moments, he’s the one who tried the hardest, you know,” his mother Sangeeta Suneja told "American Greed" of her son’s desperate attempt to try to save the plane and his passengers.

Experts have since linked both crashes to fatal design flaws within the 737 MAX — a reimagined version of the company's popular 737 plane which some say was rushed to market amid Boeing's climate of corporate greed and cost-cutting by Boeing executives in order to compete with Airbus’ then-new, fuel-efficient A320 Neo.

Boeing, the largest aerospace corporation in the world, was founded in Seattle in 1916 and was long considered an engineering-focused company that had produced the bombers which helped win World War II and assisted in sending men to the moon.

But some former employees and consumer analysts told “American Greed” that the company’s focus began to shift after a merger with McDonald Douglas in 1997, which reportedly brought “a cut-throat culture of cost-cutting.”

“It transformed itself from an engineering company into a financial corporation,” consumer activist (and Stumo's great uncle) Ralph Nader said.

“Instead of focusing on engineering, research and development, it focused on the stock price, it focused on stock options for the bosses,” he charged.

Before the crashes, Boeing had began to aggressively buy back its own shares, spending $11 billion on buybacks from 2004 to 2008.

“Stock buybacks don’t create any jobs, they don’t bolster pensions, they don’t get put in research and development," Nader said. "They just increase the metrics for executive compensation for the guys at the top.”

But while Boeing’s stock price rose and the company continued to pour billions into the buybacks, Airbus focused on innovation. In 2011, the rival company unveiled its A320 Neo, a more fuel-effective option for airlines.

Caught by surprise, and rather than spending years to develop an entirely new jet, Boeing decided to compete with Airbus by refiguring their existing 737 jets be more fuel efficient, saving an estimated $7 billion dollars, according to the episode.

“Airbus springs their trap and the only thing we can do from standing flat footed is a derivative of the 737,” former Boeing engineer Stan Sorscher told “American Greed.”

Still, with new fuel-efficient engines and a new name, the 737 MAX quickly became the fastest selling jet in the company’s history.

But former Boeing engineer Adam Dixon — who worked on the 737 MAX project — told the show that “time, schedule and cost” were the focus of the project and, when engineers voiced concerns, they were often ignored.

The positioning of the new engines, they found, altered the handling of the jet and pitched it higher than pilots expected. To solve the issue, Boeing used a software program called the Maneuvering Characteristic Augmentation System (MCAS) to automatically push the nose of the plane down if a single sensor on the nose of the jet detected that the plane was pointed too high.

That one sensor had been notoriously unreliable in the past — but there were no backups put into place. And when an engineer voiced concern about having the single sensor in 2015, the concerns were never addressed.

“I’ve got 36 years in the aviation business and this was by far the biggest blunder that I’ve seen and there’s no close second,” said Joe Jacobson, a former safety engineer at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Boeing leadership also made another critical decision. In a memo obtained by “American Greed,” one executive noted that, if they emphasized the new MCAS system as a new function, there may be new training or certification necessary for pilots — which could add extra costs to the roll-out.

“They guaranteed some of their first customers a million per plane if they had to go to simulator training, so the pressures started on day one before the thing was even fully designed and under production,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said.

Boeing opted to remove all mention of the MCAS system in its flight manuals and never fully disclosed the new system to the FAA, according to “American Greed.”

That's why the Indonesia pilot, Suneja, never found any information about the system in the flight manuals as he was fighting against the jet before his plane crashed.

Boeing would later tell American Airlines that the system had “misbehaved” during the flight — but the CEO, Muilenburg, would continue to insist the jet was safe in media interviews.

“The bottom line here is the 737 MAX is safe,” he told Fox Business at the time.

Two months after the first 737 MAX crash, Boeing executives authorized a years-long, $20 billion program to buy back even more shares of its stock, in an effort to keep its stock price rising and reassure the public that there were no concerns with the aerospace company.

Yet an FAA risk assessment found that, if the company made no adjustments to its MCAS system, another 15 planes could crash over the next 30 years.

“The fact that their own analysis told them they were likely to be lots of further accidents if they did nothing and they still did nothing, I mean I don’t understand how these people go to bed at night,” Javier De Luis, aerospace consultant and lecturer for MIT told “American Greed.

Du Luis’ sister died in the 737 MAX crash in Ethopia with Nader’s great-niece Stumo. But when both women stepped onto that plane, neither they nor the pilots had any way of knowing that the single sensor controlling the MCAS system on that plane had already been damaged.

When the plane began to dive because of the damaged sensor, the pilots were aware of the MCAS system and switched off its power, but they were going too fast by that point and couldn’t pull the plane out of its speeding dive.

“It didn’t have to happen,” Nader said, adding that the deaths were “all in the name of corporate profiteering.”

“Those two crashes were eminently avoidable,” he said.

Then, as news spread of the second crash, the 737 MAX was grounded across the world and Boeing found itself under increased scrutiny.

In May 2019, the DeFazio's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee began a series of hearings — part of six-month investigation into the 737 MAX — where Muilenburg testified that, after the two crashes, Boeing had finally altered the design of its jets so that the MCAS would rely on two different sensors rather than one.

At the time, he was still drawing a $30 million salary.

He was asked to resign in December 2019 and left with $60 million in salary, pension and stock awards.

In January 2021, the Department of Justice charged Boeing with fraud for deceiving the FAA with “misleading statements” and “half-truths” about the MCAS system. However, the sole employees the government said were responsible for the deception were two test pilots — one of whom was later independently indicted for fraud.

“Boeing has essentially thrown two of its lowest level employees under the bus and assigned all responsibility to them,” said John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School.

But, he noted: “Test pilots don’t run Boeing.”

Boeing settled the case with a deferred prosecution agreement that will likely be dismissed in three years, according to “American Greed.” In a statement to producers, Boeing said they had made “significant changes” to the company since the fatal crashes.

But for Stumo’s family, that’s not nearly enough.

“Our whole life is totally different, like every single moment of our lives. I just have trouble getting regular life done,” her mother Nadia Milleron said. “I have a long way to go, I think, and I definitely don’t want this for any other family or any other mother.”

To learn more, tune into "American Greed" at 10 p.m. ET/PT Wednesday on CNBC

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