737 crash in Indonesia: capitalism is culpable

Shea Stewart is a member of the YCL’s London District

A Boeing 737 flying with Sriwijaya Air downed in the Java Sea carrying over 60 people, just four minutes after takeoff from Indonesia’s capital Jakarta on Saturday (9 January 2021). The plane lost 10,000 feet of altitude in less than a minute, flight tracking data shows. 

The Indonesian Navy initially mobilised for a large scale search for the plane, but locals were already pulling wreckage from the sea where the plane downed.

This news comes at a difficult time for Boeing. This latest crash is eerily similar to the LionAir Flight 610 disaster in 2018, where a newer model of 737 nosedived into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, killing all 189 passengers and crew. This crash, alongside the downing of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, prompted the immediate grounding of all MAX model 737s worldwide. 

On Thursday Boeing were ordered to pay $2.5 billion to settle criminal charges of Fraud Conspiracy in US court: the company was found to have hid vital information from safety officials about the fatal flaws in their passenger aircrafts, willfully impeding investigation into the cause of the death of 346 people. Even the bourgeois US Justice Department attacked Boeing’s cynical actions, remarking they had “put profit before candour”. 

Boeing’s sacrificial lamb, Dennis Muilenberg, was ousted as CEO in the midst of the company’s crisis around the crashes in an attempt to “restore confidence in the Company moving forward”. Muilenberg was rewarded for his part in the death of hundreds with a $60 million payout, and the structure that allowed such an oversight remains fully intact. 

The question remains: why does the global south bear the brunt of airline disasters? Airline passengers in developing countries like Indonesia are 13 times more likely to be killed in an air accident than those in the first world. 

Sriwijaya Air, the airline responsible for the latest crash, has had a bad track record when it comes to maintenance. In late 2019 the Indonesian Transport Ministry grounded over half of its fleet over concerns about airworthiness. 

The airline’s second hand outdated planes, passed off from richer western airlines towards the end of their 25 year recommended life cycle, were not being adequately maintained. By all accounts, Sriwijaya was running on razor thin profit margins, with rumours of liquidation circling last year. The airline’s operating procedure has reached its inevitable conclusion in disaster.

The reality of capitalism is this: while industries such as aviation are still run for the motive of profit, people will continue to needlessly die: cutting corners has a tangible human cost. The operating procedure of western airlines, shifting off its obsolete planes to companies in the global south who they know cannot properly maintain them, is demonstrably killing people.

The invisible hand of the free market has created a culture in which human life is secondary to the bottom line. As US astronaut John Glenn is quoted on his time with NASA: “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind – every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder”. 

Shea Stewart

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