The Daily Parker

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A tale of two periodicals

This morning I pointed to William Langewische's essay the New York Times Magazine published this morning about the 737-MAX airplane crashes last year. Lagnewische has flown airplanes professionally and covers aviation as part of his regular beat. He has written, among other things, analyses of the Egypt Air Flight 990 suicide-murder in 1999; an entire book about the USAirways 1549 Hudson River ditching in 2009; and numerous other articles and essays of varying lengths about aviation. His father, Wolfgang, wrote one of the most widely-read books about aviation of the 20th Century.

Langewishce's essay takes a sober, in-depth approach to disentangling the public perception of Boeing and its management from the actual context of both 737-MAX crashes. While he doesn't absolve Boeing entirely, he explains how the regulatory, training, and safety mindsets (or lack thereof) in Indonesia and Ethiopia probably contributed much more to the accidents.

This afternoon comes a different perspective from the New Republic. In her first article for the magazine, New York-based writer Maureen Tkacik takes aim squarely at Boeing's management. Her tone seems a bit different than Langewische's:

In the now infamous debacle of the Boeing 737 MAX, the company produced a plane outfitted with a half-assed bit of software programmed to override all pilot input and nosedive when a little vane on the side of the fuselage told it the nose was pitching up. The vane was also not terribly reliable, possibly due to assembly line lapses reported by a whistle-blower, and when the plane processed the bad data it received, it promptly dove into the sea.

[T]here was something unsettlingly familiar when the world first learned of MCAS in November, about two weeks after the system’s unthinkable stupidity drove the two-month-old plane and all 189 people on it to a horrific death. It smacked of the sort of screwup a 23-year-old intern might have made—and indeed, much of the software on the MAX had been engineered by recent grads of Indian software-coding academies making as little as $9 an hour, part of Boeing management’s endless war on the unions that once represented more than half its employees.

But not everyone viewed the crash with such a jaundiced eye—it was, after all, the world’s first self-hijacking plane. Pilots were particularly stunned, because MCAS had been a big secret, largely kept from Boeing’s own test pilots, mentioned only once in the glossary of the plane’s 1,600-page manual, left entirely out of the 56-minute iPad refresher course that some 737-certified pilots took for MAX certification, and—in a last-minute edit—removed from the November 7 emergency airworthiness directive the Federal Aviation Administration had issued two weeks after the Lion Air crash, ostensibly to “remind” pilots of the protocol for responding to a “runaway stabilizer.”

She does mention the reputation of Indonesian aviation about mid-way through: "And so all the early hot takes about the crash concerned Indonesia’s spotty safety record and Lion Air’s even-less-distinguished one."

I searched for a few minutes to find out what experience Tkacik has flying airplanes or reporting on aviation, and while no results don't necessarily mean she has none, I would conclude from what I found that she has many different experiences.

Tkacik's take isn't entirely wrong; Boeing has some responsibility here. But the contrast between Langewische's sober, fact-based reporting and Tkacik's damn-them-all-to-hell point-of-view piece really surprised me today, as did Tkacik's choice not to report more deeply on why Boeing made certain choices, and what I find to be an over-reliance on a single source who seems to have a bone to pick with his former employer.

Of course, her article it's completely in line with the New Republic's anti-corporate editorial philosophy. Yet I found myself rolling my eyes after the first couple of paragraphs because it's so anti-corporate, and frustratingly shrill. It's why I stopped reading The Nation, another outlet Tkacik has written for, and why I find myself fact-checking Mother Jones. If everything is an outrage, and all corporations are evil, where does that leave us?

Comments (2) -

  • Jack Brown

    9/22/2019 2:07:09 PM +00:00 |

    I read the two articles and came to quite a different conclusion. While I've always respected Langewishce as a reporter and writer, I found this piece unconvincing and nearly bizarre in its focus on the incompetence of the pilots and the absent safety culture at Lion Air and Ethiopia Air.

    His paragraph on the MCAS's creation which comes 2/3 of the way down, "The MCAS as it was designed and implemented was a big mistake. It remains unclear exactly what went wrong at Boeing — who decided what, and why — but a small collective breakdown had obviously occurred," seems calculated to trivialize what was the root cause of the crash. Boeing tried to save a few dollars by selling what turned out to be a self-crashing plane. Tkacik's piece correctly focuses on the financialization, and thereby crapification, of Boeing's safety culture following the MD acquisition.

    Don't get me wrong, the NYT piece properly draws attention to the incompetence of the pilots involved in the crashes, but it does so by intentionally obfuscating what really caused the crashes, all in the interest of a contrarian take. That's not what I would have expected from William Langewische.

  • The Daily Parker

    9/22/2019 2:45:22 PM +00:00 |

    Jack, thanks for the comment.

    The probable causes of the crashes have not yet been established. That said, I expect the NTSB will find that the probable cause includes both factors. But any aviation accident will have a chain of events leading to it. Boeing's and the airlines' cultures contributed, as did the actions of the pilots. We're probably a few months out from the NTSB final reports. I'll post about them when they come out.

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