Netflix’s new film about recent Boeing plane crashes is a damning account of why the disasters happened and who was responsible
AS STORM Eunice buffeted much of the UK last month, a surprising focal point emerged: the live webcam stream of arrivals at London Heathrow Airport. At one point, 200,000 viewers tuned in to watch passenger planes struggle against the wind to land safely.
This mixture of fascination and fear typifies our relationship with flying. It feels risky, but we don’t really expect a crash.
Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, directed by Rory Kennedy and new to Netflix after a positive reception at Sundance in January, opens with the usual reassurances about the safety of air travel: tens of thousands of flights pass without incident daily all over the world. Many of these use Boeing planes, a fact that, until recently, was considered to be a good thing. Trust in the company was such that there was a phrase in the aviation industry: “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going.”
Then, in October 2018, all that changed. A Lion Air flight crashed into the sea with 189 people on board, minutes after departing from Jakarta in Indonesia. All passengers and crew were killed. Five months later, an Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed in similar circumstances, and with a similarly tragic outcome. The type of plane in both cases was a 737 Max, a recently released update of the Boeing 737.
These crashes brought to an end the safest period for commercial flying in the history of aviation. It also cast doubt on Boeing’s reputation as a model of safety and the premier aeroplane manufacturer in the US.
The black box of the Lion Air flight revealed a failure of the “angle-of-attack” sensor that measures the angle of the nose ofthe plane while in flight. Simulations and testimony from pilots paint a sickening picture of the desperate battle to regain control of the aircraft.
Boeing traced this to a software failure: an erroneous activation of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), new to the 737 Max. Pilots could have switched it off, had they known it existed. But Boeing hadn’t told them it was a feature of the updated 737, let alone trained them on it.
The former Wall Street Journal reporter Andy Pasztor, who acts as the audience’s guide through the story, says a senior executive at Boeing told him that the airline “didn’t want to overwhelm” pilots.
The anger of pilots and unions at this omission seems justified. Dennis Tajer at the Allied Pilots Association calls it “disrespectful”, adding: “You want to know as much about your airplane as possible.”
In the fallout, Boeing, having previously enjoyed its position as the pilots’ advocate, briefed journalists against Lion Air and the flight’s pilot, Bhavye Suneja, saying (to quote Pasztor) that “an American pilot would never have gotten into this kind of a situation”. The testimony of Suneja’s widow stands in dignified contrast to this. “I knew my husband. I knew how he flew,” she says.
“Simulations paint a sickening picture of the desperate battle to regain control of the aircraft”
After the first crash, while a software fix was in the works, 737 Maxes continued to fly. Then came the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The US Federal Aviation Administration did nothing, but many countries grounded the 737 Max planes, and put pressure on then US president Donald Trump to take action.
The subsequent government investigation found “repeated and serious failures” by Boeing. In November 2021, the airline admitted total responsibility for the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
Boeing’s contribution to the film is limited to a supplied statement in corporate-ese at the end. Combined with the depth of research, this lack of participation makes the film seem like a damning report rather than a one-sided one.
Downfall is a brisk, level-headed account of a company’s colossal failing, and the lengths that it will go to preserve reputation and profit margins, even at the expense of safety. But what makes it memorable viewing is the reminder of the trust we need when we take to the skies.
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