A Special Investigative Report
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on March 24, 2019
On July 2, 2012, Airbus announced that it was establishing a manufacturing facility in Mobile, Alabama to assemble and deliver its A320 series of aircraft. It would become the company's first American-based production facility. Airbus stressed that the assembly line, which will create jobs and strengthen the aerospace industry, is part of its strategy to enhance Airbus' global competitiveness by meeting the growing needs of its customers in the United States and elsewhere.
The facility in Alabama would assemble the industry-leading family of A319, A320 and A321 aircraft. This project was expected to create 1,000 stable, well-paying jobs.
The company began construction of the assembly line in the summer of 2013. Aircraft assembly started in 2015, with the first deliveries from the Mobile facility beginning in 2016. Since 2018, the Airbus facility has produced between 40 and 50 aircraft per year.
U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) lavished praise on Airbus for choosing Mobile as the location for their first aircraft assembly operation in the United States. “Mobile has long been a hub for world class shipbuilding and it will now become a critical node for the U.S. aerospace industry as well,” said Shelby. “The effects of this decision will reverberate far beyond Alabama, however, as the entire country will benefit from having both global commercial aircraft manufacturers building planes on U.S. soil," he proclaimed.
In a press statement critical of then-President Barack Obama, Sen. Shelby claimed that Airbus made a direct $600 million investment in the Mobile facility because (a) Alabama is a right to work state (which impedes union organizing activities), (b) the state has an attractive taxation infrastructure for wealthy corporations, and (c) his sustained efforts to deregulate the airline manufacturing industry have been successful.
On January 16, 2019, Airbus and Alabama officials announced that the company is constructing a new assembly line at its Mobile facility to build A220 airplanes. Airbus has projected that the new assembly line represents a direct investment of more than $200 million and will provide more than 400 jobs.
Airbus has embraced an aggressive timetable for this project. The company intends to start manufacturing the first A220 made in Mobile this year, well before the new assembly line is finished. The first new A220 from Mobile is due to be delivered in 2020.
The Two Boeing 737 MAX Crashes Changed Everything
Boeing’s answer to Airbus’ A320 series of aircraft is the 737 MAX series of airplanes. As Boeing hustled in 2015 to catch up to the Airbus A320neo and certify its new 737 MAX series of aircraft, FAA managers pushed the agency’s safety engineers to delegate safety assessments to Boeing itself, and to speedily approve the resulting analysis.
When two new $120 million Boeing 737MAX 8 airplanes fell out of the skies over Indonesia and Ethiopia within the last five months, everybody knew something was terribly wrong with these airplanes. Terrorism was immediately ruled out as the cause of each crash.
"These crashes emerged from an experience we’re all familiar with: the pressure to deliver on a tight timetable, the temptation to cut corners, and the hope that in a big, complex world, one little kludge won’t mess up the whole program," according to Quartz.com in a March 23, 2019 article titled, “The Boeing 737 MAX crisis goes way beyond software.”
Well, the two deadly 737 MAX crashes in less than five months shocked passengers, regulators, and industry alike. They definitely messed up the “whole program” for Boeing.
The crashes have also placed Sen. Richard Shelby and other “Swamp” creatures in Washington on the hot seat. They routinely peddle influence for corporate interests in exchange for campaign cash and “dark money” contributions. Shelby, whose campaign coffers historically contain massive amounts of cash, has bragged privately that “too much money ain’t never enough.” He has mastered the art of political “whoring” for mega, cash-rich corporations.
Shelby and the band of lobbyists he groomed to deregulate the aviation industry now have a real problem – a federal grand jury is looking into how and why an unsafe airplane was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) and Boeing as “airworthy” and “safe to fly” in an unusually short period of time (i.e., the 737 MAX performed its first flight on January 29, 2016 and gained FAA certification on March 8, 2017). Additionally, criminal investigators want to know who gamed the FAA’s system for certifying new airplanes in a way that resulted in two tragic crashes that caused 346 fatalities.
Crisis Management for Influence Peddlers
As we reported Saturday in “'Swamp' Creatures Lawyer Up in Aftermath of 737 MAX Crashes," Boeing has retained high-powered criminal lawyers in Washington and Chicago to represent the company and several of its senior management executives during the federal grand jury investigation. Additionally, the company’s PR spin doctors are already peddling a comforting but misleading narrative that the 737 MAX aircraft can be fixed with a simple software update, the installation of some inexpensive warning lights, and additional pilot training.
Once again, Boeing and the FAA are cutting corners in a rush to get the grounded 737 MAX airplanes back in the skies. However, the timetable for "fixing" a politically manipulated and compromised regulatory system is drastically different from the timetable in a federal grand jury investigation into an avoidable event that caused the deaths of 346 passengers and crew members. The grand jury investigation could last between 18 to 24 months.
While Boeing, as a corporate entity, will not be indicted for the 346 fatalities, one or more executives within its ranks will likely become a proverbial “sacrificial lamb.” To minimize the number of “sacrificial lambs” offered up from Boeing, the company has implored a legal strategy in the criminal investigation that shifts all of the blame for truncating and expediting the safety analysis of the faulty flight control system on the 737 MAX airplanes from Boeing to the FAA managers in charge of the certification process.
In Boeing’s view, these FAA managers are underpaid government employees who do not have the financial resources to hire highly qualified criminal lawyers to assist them in the responding effectively to the grand jury investigation. As such, Boeing believes these FAA managers are the best candidates to serve as “scapegoats” in the criminal case.
Sen. Shelby and his cadre of homegrown aviation industry lobbyists have lawyered up, as well. In Shelby’s view, everybody at the FAA and Boeing is dispensable. After all, Shelby has Airbus as a backup political ally and major financial contributor.
PHOTO: U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the chief architect of deregulation in the aviation manufacturing industry.